One of the events we were honored to host here at the bookstore a few years ago was an author appearance/speaking engagement and celebration of a then just released book by Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos Press.) Still enhanced with those fabulous linocuts by our friend Ned Bustard, it just came out in paperback (now $19.99.) At that event, Karen explained the thesis of the book — that reading classic literature can not only be entertaining and interesting and edifying, but can actually help form within us Christian virtues. The book has sold well and many have loved it. In it, she famously linked a certain classic novel with a certain virtue. It’s what I playfully sometimes call a “two-fer” — you learn both about virtue/character formation and you learn a Christian view of reading. You could even call it a three-fer” because you also learn the basic plot lines and themes of a dozen great works, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Melville to Dickens.
One of the questions I asked Karen was how this actually happens. I know some people that have read most of those great books and, frankly, they can nonetheless be real jerks. Heck, I have read some of those books and I have no illusion that I consistently exhibit these virtues. I read all kinds of good books and it hasn’t rubbed off all that well. I wonder why that is and maybe you do, too.
Dr. Prior shows that living with these great stories can deepen our character; she moves beyond what we can learn from them, to what we can become when we read well. But in that book, focused as it is on certain classic virtues cultivated from certain specific books, she seems a bit less interested in exploring how it happens. I’m still haunted by the question.
Now we have two brand new books that continue this conversation and, I think, help answer the question I posed to Karen. Enter Jessica Hooten Wilson and Mary W. McCampbell, with their two new releases, The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints (Brazos Press) and Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy (Fortress Press.)
Both help us along by exploring specific stories that can shape us (so it makes perfect sense that Saint Prior endorses them both quite nicely) and both authors tell us a bit of how it happens. They are, I think, perfect for those who read On Reading Well and liked it and are eager for more. They go “further on and deeper in” to this topic, with verve and joy and upbeat relevance. Both are also, I think, good for those who got On Reading Well but didn’t like it as much as they thought they might (if there are any such souls.) Love On Reading Well or not, these are the two to read next. Prior herself says so. They are among my favorite books of this season, and I’m thrilled to tell you just a bit about them. And then I will add two more in the same ballpark, two about the visual arts.
The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints Jessica Hooten Wilson (Brazos Press) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
Jessica Hooten Wilson is a very accomplished writer, and super-smart scholar with a PhD from Baylor University. She holds a prestigious position as the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. Her essays, literary criticism, cultural analysis, and spiritual reflections have been published in Comment, The Christian Century, The National Review, and the Englewood Review of Books. She wrote a major (and award-winning) academic book on “demonic authority in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky” which might give you a hint of her interests and tastes. Interestingly, she has another hardback book coming (from Zondervan Academic; $29.99) in May 2022 — we are taking pre-orders now for Learning the Good Life: Wisdom from the Great Hearts and Minds That Came Before (which introduces about 35 famous writers from various cultures and genres, ranging from Confucius, Augustine, Margery Kempe, W.E.B. DuBois, Simon Weil, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolfe, David Foster Wallace, through Marilyn Robinson and a poem by Wendell Berry.)
This brand new one, though,The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination…, is very much about fiction writers. Like Karen Swallow Prior, is convinced of and passionate about the formative power of reading. Her goal, rather than extolling virtues (a la Prior’s appropriation of Aquinas, say) is holiness, as taught directly in the Bible. Reading great literature becomes a spiritual practice. The foreword is wonderfully crafted by Lauren Winner. Winner’s opening ends with these lines:
I’ll be conversing with, riffing on, and returning to The Scandal of Holiness for months and years to come, because, although it is not fiction, like the best fiction, The Scandal of Holiness prods the imagination. It opens out. It exceeds itself.
This book is about a key aspect of the formation in holiness that Dr. Hooten invites us to — she shows that “learning to hear the call of holiness requires developing a new imagination.” Yes, this book is about the imagination.
By exploring many novels old and new (and citing all sorts of other writers, from Walter Brueggemann to Buechner to von Balthasar, she explains how “God opens up a way of living that extends far beyond what we can conjure for ourselves.” This is really, really good stuff — I speak about this often, myself, in workshops and classes, and can get rather fiery, but seeing it so eloquently described with so many, many respectable case studies and literary examples, reminds me how wonderful and important this line of thought really is.
As Russell Moore (who is quite an amazing reader, himself) writes of it:
This book will spur you to read more and will show you how to do it. Wilson knows the difference between being well-read and being holy as she calls us to strive for holiness even in our reading. This book illustrates how good literature can stir the imagination and how the imagination can stir us toward holiness. The voice of this book is not of an English teacher asking if you have done your reading but instead that of a smart and humble friend who says to you: ‘Let me introduce you to some friends who know exactly what you’re going through right now.’ — Russell Moore, The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul
By the way, as Moore noted, this is not just a literature prof (or bookseller) nagging you to read more, but it is a friend and guide to a better life, a more deeply Christian sort of discipleship, beckoning us to more generous and wise vision of the world. She wants to know God and God’s ways. In fact, there are icon-like drawings to start each chapter (not attributed, which is odd) and an excellent devotional reflection at the end of each chapter which includes a nice paragraph excerpted from one of the novels she discusses, a short Scripture, and a quote or prayer from church history. (There are also great discussion questions making it even a more useful resource for your devotions, and, certainly, terrific for book clubs.) We have only rarely seen this juxtaposition of fiction and Scripture and reflection, so these brief readings are themselves remarkable.
Here are just a few of the novels (or stories) that Wooten tells us about, showing how they can form our imaginative vision, our world and life view, if you will: Lazarus by Vodolaskin, That Hideous Strength by Lewis, Book of the Dun Cow by Wangerin, Man of the Mountain by Hurston, In the Time of Butterflies by Alvarez, Kristin Lavransdatter by Undset, Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos, The Violent Bear It Away by O’Connor, The Power and the Glory by Greene, A Lesson before Dying by Gaines, and Last Gentleman by Percy.
Surveying these and many more I kept thinking that I wish Eugene Peterson could have lived to have seen this book in his lifetime. He was an advocate for reading these very sorts of books (and wrote about their impact in his own life and ministry.) Hooten is certainly right about her thesis that spending time with these great authors and their acclaimed stories and draw us more deeply into the story of God, and can make us holy. Peterson would say it just like that and he would have endorsed this breathtaking volume. (Which makes me think of our friend, novelist and biographer of Peterson, Winn Collier, who has founded, at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan, The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination. It did not surprise me to hear that he and Jessica are friends and that they are dreaming up some possible collaborations.)
Here, to further entice you to order this wonderful (225 page) book, is the admittedly allusive and suggestion-rich table of contents:
- Foreword by Lauren F. Winner
- 1. Holy Foolishness
- 2. Communion of Saints
- 3. Creation Care as a Holy Calling
- 4. Liberating Prophets
- 5. Virgin, Bride, Mother
- 6. Contemplative and Active Life
- 7. Sharing in His Suffering
- 8. Ars Moriendi
I love the cover, don’t you —the flame emerging from the book? Yes! The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints is quiet fire.
Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy Mary W. McCampbell (Fortress Press) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
I think Beth and I first met Mary at her apartment in Grand Rapids a decade ago during the legendary Calvin Festival of Faith & Music, curated by Ken Heffner and his crackerjack team of pop culture savants. I do know she has a very, very nice line about Ken in the acknowledgements, as well as to her friend and colleague, film studies guru Dr. Joe Kikasola, of Baylor’s New York City arts program. These are not inconsequential influences. We love McCampbell’s perspective, her writing style, her wit and grace, not to mention her deep academic knowledge (her PhD is from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. Not bad for a Tennessee gal who has written about distinctively post-secular USA writers like Chuck Palahniuk.)
She ends the book telling of a conversation in a cool coffee shop with indie singer Monique Aiuto, wife of Brooklyn poet and pastor, Vito Aiuto, with whom Monique founded the quirky worship band Welcome Wagon, talking about their song Up on the Mountain which then segues to a line from Dave Eggers What Is the What and ends with a line from a 1957 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church sermon by MLK. It is that kind of fabulous book.
In a way, Imagining Our Neighbors… is a step even further away from Karen Swallow Prior’s ‘learn virtue from the classics’ approach in On Reading Well than is Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness. Yet, as with Jessica’s volume, Dr. Prior likes this one, too. A lot. Here is what she says on the back cover:
Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves will instruct and delight any reader who cares even a little about art, imagination, and humanity. Mary McCampbell is a faithful, loving guide who will teach you things you didn’t even know you needed to know, and this is a book you won’t even realize you needed until you’ve read it. — Karen Swallow Prior, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
Jessica Hooten Wilson, too, has raved about it, understanding as she does, why this volume is so very important, similar to hers, but different:
McCampbell has given us a vision of a flourishing community: one full of art, music, film, and fiction that tells the stories of who we are and the diverse gifts we bring to the table. Her book will have us opening our eyes to more clearly see those who are different from us — either because of gender, skin color, ability, or political opinions — as our neighbors. — Jessica Hooten Wilson, University of Dallas, author of The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints
As you can pick up from these descriptions, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves…is, like Prior and Hooten’s books, about the imagination. About deepening it, using it artfully, cultivating the practice of reading so as to enlarge the heart and set loose our imaginative capacities, all for the sake of see as God might want, even cooperating with God’s work in our lives and in God’s world. You know that promise that “glory to glory” promise in 1 Corinthians 3, showing that God is working on us, transforming us into Christlikeness from the inside-out? This is partially how it happens, with literature and the arts being conduits of virtue and holiness and Christlikeness and, yes, glory. She shows how the arts can be prophetic, even, helping us see the image of God in others, helping us understand a bit of what she calls “Divine hospitality” and motivating us, like the Hebrew prophets, to denounce idolatry and injustice. Such good reading and viewing and listening can give us sturdy hope. As Mako Fujimura puts it, McCampbell, “paints a landscape of mystery, hope, and splendor for our imagination to be fed and to be nurtured toward the New Creation.”
Although the subtitle on the cover of McCampbell’s book says it is about how “the arts” can shape us, it focuses largely on what she calls “narrative art” (that is, fiction writing, music, TV shows, films, graphic novels, even memoir.) And it makes the very powerful case — a case I often try to make but never as thoroughly or as compellingly as Mary does here — that we become more empathic as we enter in, engaging with the narratives of others.
Which is what makes this book stand out — it is about empathy. It is about learning to love. It is about what the New Testament calls agape. She actually explores a lot about how empathy works and why it is important for human flourishing, for justice, for fidelity to God’s ways in the world. She easily moves from Graham Greene to the Holy Bible, from Lars and the Real Girl to faithful theology, from The Hate U Give to spiritual formation, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Pope Benedict, from The Walking Dead to Rectify to Blankets to Magnolia to Better Call Saul to that movie about Mr. Rogers to a quote from Henri Nouwen. Naturally, in the introduction she has a citation from David Dark’s classic Everyday Apocalypse and she invites us all to ponder how all this popular art can draw us into ways of God’s own mercy.
Please note carefully these words of Christina Edmondson, Christian psychologist and cohost of Truth’s Table podcast and author of the brand new Faithful Antiracism: Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change that we reviewed in a previous BookNotes last week:
McCampbell takes the ingredients of the familiar and invites us on a theological and experiential journey to self and neighbor compassion. In her book, both storytelling and story analysis, from film to Holy Scripture, inspire and equip us to grow what seems so lacking today: empathy.
I so enjoyed skimming through this quickly (as I did with Jessica Hooten Wilson’s) like a kid in a candy store. But these books are not candy, tasty and fun as they are. Reading these books is important spiritual work; they are good tools for nurturing the Christian mind, resources for our journey towards Kingdom living, opportunities for fascinating faith formation for being thoughtful readers in these days. Christina Edmondson is right about both books when she says of Imagining Your Neighbors, “I’d encourage readers to move through the text slowly, learning from the phrases and insights, and even vicariously from McCampbell’s style of engagement with the arts, to strengthen their empathy muscle.”
Here’s some of your workout if you take up this particular soul-stirring, muscle-building agenda with McCampbell as your coach:
- Introduction: The Imagination as a Means to Love
- Art as a Model for the Empathetic Imagination
- Empathy for the Wretched and Glorious Human ConditionStories as Self-Reflection
- Who Is Our Neighbor?
- Structured for Empathy
- Growing Empathy for Our Enemies
- Conclusion — Empathy in the Greatest Story
Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith Russ Ramsey (Zondervan Reflective) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
Perhaps you saw this brand new book listed over at our Jubilee Conference special online bookstore, that e-commerce site we set up to correlate with Jubilee 2022. (I explained all that and invited you to that website at a previous BookNotes, here.) Ramsey is a good and clear writer and is pizzzazed, charged up telling us all what he has been learning as he has fallen in love with great art. Like the above books on literature, this one, too, hopes to help us deepen our imagination, live more mindfully aware of the good gifts that artists can bring. He wants to do this “through the eyes of faith,” as the subtitle says, making it ideal for anyone wanting to relate art appreciation with Biblical faith. Because he doesn’t get heavy into aesthetic theory or interact much with the robust conversation that has been going on about faith and art, it is good for, really anyone. There is a very good forward by Makoto Fujimura.
Here is what I wrote about it there at the Hearts & Minds Jubilee bookstore website:
Ramsey is a pastor and preacher and an ideal teacher to help us become acquainted with a handful of the world’s most famous artists and art pieces. Not all of the painters explored here were good people — but all wrestled with God’s goodness and grace and offered stunning visual reminders of the deepest question of life, including matters of faith.
Rev. Ramsey thrills readers with background drama (including a riveting bit about one of the most costly art heists in history, which included Rembrandt’s painting of the disciples of Jesus begging him to calm the seas, which remains missing to this day.) There is Bible study, some basic inspirational teaching, and lots of good info about the artists and their masterpieces. This will appeal to anyone wanting to think about art in relationship to Christian faith — ideal to open up the relevance of our “Jubilee vision” where God can be found everywhere! What a great read!
You know, I read through this quickly (an occupational hazard) and found so much so very interesting. I didn’t ponder the deeper meaning that much (yet!) and still found it fabulously edifying. And then I saw these comments from my friend, novelist Shawn Smucker, who I trust very, very much. Get this:
Russ Ramsey was kind enough to give me an early chapter of this book a few years ago when I was preparing to go on a silent retreat and asked him for a work of art I might spend some time meditating on during my weekend away. Thanks to Russ’s recommendation, I spent hours contemplating Rembrandt’s painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. I was shaken by the depiction of this scene and the disciples’ question to Jesus, ‘Do you not care that we are perishing?’ Russ’s gentle shepherding of my understanding regarding the painting and the Biblical story behind it was a balm in my life just when I needed it. I know that this book will be the same for you. — Shawn Smucker, author of Theses Nameless Things, The Weight of Memory, Light from Distant Stars
I might add, here, that besides being a helpful spiritual guide, Ramsey is a very fine writer and did a set of three books that are hard to describe — they are rich devotional reading in a series called “Retelling the Story” starting with The Advent of the Lamb of God, The Passion of the King of Glory, and The Mission of the Body of Christ. (Each is quite handsomely done by IVP and goes for $18.00.) If you know them you won’t be surprised that this new art volume is by the same author, a serious Bible guy, a creative himself, a writer who wants us all to grow in our imaginative worldview and live into God’s ways amidst a broken culture that still offers rumors of glory.
Ramsey also wrote a book that moved me very deeply, about his own human emotions and struggles when he came face to face with death. That memorable, award-winning book came out in 2017 and is called Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP; $16.00.)
In any case, Russ Ramsey is an author we respect, a writer you should know, and we are thrilled to promote Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith here at our 20% off BookNotes special.
Here’s what I love about Russ Ramsey’s latest project–it understands down deep that Truth is exclusive to no party or sect; that Goodness arrives in the form of the lonely, the ill, and the outcast; and that Beauty, amid the church’s moral twilight, might be the last apologetic that holds. — Leif Enger, author of Virgil Wander and Peace Like A River
The Art of New Creation: Trajectories in Theology and the Arts edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor (IVP Academic) $30.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00
I must admit, that although this remarkable book may be just a bit of a niche taste, it is one I”m personally very excited about. It is just exquisitely good for those who care about the deep conversation around faith and the arts, Christianity and creativity, Christians in the world of the contemporary visual arts. Because it not only offers a glimpse into so many different artists and art styles (from modern dance to sculpture, classical music to abstract painting and more ) in dialogue with theology and Scripture and missional envisioning, it is a book that I just want to press into the hands of almost anyone who reads BookNotes. Really, it is, in many ways, a model for thinking Christianly and witnessing creatively that could inspire similar dreams and visions in other fields and careers. I have anticipated this almost more than any other book this year, and we are wonderfully elated to get to tell you just a bit about it here, now. It’s just so very, very good.
Perhaps you may recall a breathy BookNotes we did last November after we had a book display at the wonderful CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) conference in Austin. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, we didn’t get to display most of what we had hoped to at that big gig, so we did this big list here. (The 30% off deal is done, but they are still on sale at our BookNotes 20% off.) We had just heard about this book about that time, so listed it then as a pre-order. And now it is out! Hooray!
I didn’t know the half of it then, but here is what I wrote about it in that November BookNotes art blog:
This forthcoming volume is going to offer great chapters from the breathtaking DITA10 Conference held at Duke Divinity School exploring how our understanding of the relationship between creation and new creation is informed by and reflected in the arts. I have not read any of it yet, but can’t wait. I know the great African American, Pennsylvania artist Steven Prince has a chapter as does the aforementioned Jennifer Allen Craft, here paired with Norman Wirzba, and loads of what look like breath-taking pieces by dancers and poets and visual artists and musicians.
And I shared this great quote which seemed to capture well the importance of The Art of the New Creation:
From music to painting to film, this volume brings theologians and practicing artists together to imagine God’s new creation that, as Begbie highlights, is ‘before us’ but not yet realized. This mind-bending idea begs for embodied expression, and our cultural moment—rife with fear and injustice—needs those who can transform our imaginations for a new world to come. This collection is an enlivening contribution to the theology and arts conversation, which can often be abstract in its conclusions and outcomes. Instead, we are offered perspectives revealing that the integration of theology and the arts can be a vital nexus from which to imagine God’s new creation in our broken world. — Shannon Steed Sigler, executive director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Seminary
Isn’t this just remarkable? We don’t hear that many sermons about “new creation”, really, let alone how artists can help us imagine what it means to live towards that vision. And we don’t have that many books, even among all the very, very good ones, about various careers and callings, that ask how this essential Biblical teaching informs our very practices. This really is a stunning idea and our hats are off to the DITA10 folks who put together this event, and the book that happily emerged from it. (DITA, by the way, is the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts and there were a bunch of DITA conferences and symposia, this one in 2019 being the 10th. Hence, DITA10.)
Kudos also to InterVarsity Press (IVP) who did a nice job with both black and white illustrations and pictures and some full color plates in this paperback edition. This is in their on-going, substantive, “Studies in the Theology and the Arts” series and the cover art reflects the uniform design of that amazing series. I don’t know how an indie publishing house can afford to do these kinds of books that will obviously not be featured in the inspirational kiosks and typical big bookstores (too artsy for the Christian bookstores and too religious for the big secular stores, who would love this, but their religion sections are filled with Joel Olsteen and Left Behind novels.) So here we are, trying to champion this rare and vivid example of a fabulous entry into the world of modern art, in light of the restoration and newness that the God of the new Covenant has promised.
That N.T. Wright did the closing sermon makes perfect sense, and it is inspiring. Thanks be to God.
Here is the splendid table of contents. It’s almost as good as being at the event, even better if you are an introvert. Enjoy being a part of DITA10. Without out any travel costs. Order one today.
Table of Contents:
Foreword by Natalie Carnes
Preface: Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor
There Before Us: New Creation in Theology and the Arts Jeremy Begbie
Part I: Soundings
1. In God’s Good Time: Poetry and the Rhythms of New Creation Devon Abts
2. Sketching the Incarnation: Ephrem of Nisibis on the Theological Significance of the Artist’s Craft Charles Augustine Rivera
3. Love’s New Creation: Reconciling Two Approaches to Theology and Arts Daniel Train
4. Transcendence, the Arts, and New Creation: An Empirical Approach Kutter Callaway
5. The Artist and the Environmental Crisis: A Paradigm for Human Living Sara Schumacher
6. The White Savior as Diseased Creation: A Theological Diagnosis and Plea Jacquelynn Price-Linnartz
7. Singing Ourselves into the Future: Worship and the New Creation W. David O. Taylor
8. A Singing Creation: Music Making and Christian Maturity in Colossians 3:16 Amy Whisenand Krall
Part II: Conversations
9. Placemaking for New Creation Jennifer Allen Craft and Norman Wirzba
10. We Flourish in a Syncopated Peace: Creation and New Creation in Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets Richard Hays and Micheal O’Siadhail
11. Creation and New Creation in J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Malcolm Guite and Judith Wolfe
12. Reflections on Performing: Living into the New Creation Elizabeth Klein and Shadwa Mussad
Part III: Arts in Action
13. Leah Glenn, Dancer
14. Lanecia A. Rouse Tinsley, Visual Artist
15. Steve Prince, Visual Artist
16. Linnéa Spransy Neuss, Visual Artist
17. Awet I. Andemicael, Musician
The Surprising Faithfulness of God: A Sermon at DITA10 N. T. Wright
Thanks for reading our BookNotes.Thanks for sending orders to our shop in Dallastown. We’d love to get these books known and sent out. We appreciate your support as you help us help you. Like one of Karen Swallow Prior said in one of the quips about one of these books — they will teach you things you may not have even known you needed. We think this is true, and we hope this helps. May be books be a blessing. Enjoy!
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