The last BookNotes newsletter included descriptions and reviews of a handful of books for pastors and ministry leaders, including several that were those who are weary and perhaps disillusioned. I described how much I appreciated The Gift of Disillusionment by our friends Peter Greer & Chris Horst, how moved I was by The Resilient Pastor by Glen Packiam, and the powerhouse stories in Stuck: Why Clergy Are Alienated from Their Calling, Congregation, and Career by sociologists, one a former pastor himself, Todd Ferguson & Josh Packer. Not all were for those who are drained by their call to minister these days; I so appreciated Tom Nelson’s The Flourishing Pastor and can’t recommend it enough. Every pastor I know would love the fabulous The Pastor’s Bookshelf which offers pretty exquisite writing about the value of the reading life and the different ways reading widely and deeply can inspire and equip pastors in their important work. That reminded me of a post we did a month ago on the significance of reading thoughtfully and well which included amazing books like The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints by Jessica Wilson Hooten and Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy by Mary McCampbell and Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just by the very lively, righteous Rev. Claude Atcho. It’s been a good season, eh? Those of us who are book lovers and love reading about our favorite pastime will be grateful for these wise reads.
I want to start this BookNotes edition telling about a book that blew me away and which I am now reading for the second time. It is rare when I make time for an immediate repeat but this book was so engaging – that is, it was very well-written in a way that was artful and richly-crafted but was equally inviting and enjoyable. Not every book that is written with literary verve and gorgeous prose is, frankly, still that interesting. This, though, a memoir of a journey in and coming out of a southern sort of fundamentalism, and finding a way through the hurts and hang-ups of that milieu, is a page-turner. My mind is reeling thinking of a dozen things to say about it as there is so much going on in this breathtaking story.
And then I review several others, each pretty honest about our human condition and yet oddly enjoyable to savor. Good reading, friends!
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Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir Charles Marsh (HarperOne) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
Evangelical Anxiety by Charles Marsh is some of what I might have expected in a memoir from him, knowing a bit about Dr. Marsh’s journey and scholarly interests. I am not sure I can describe simply his current, lively, Episcopalian kind of mere Christianity, but his conservative, Southern evangelical past is the swamp he has slogged through. As a Bonhoeffer expert (I heard him lecture gloriously about the martyred saint maybe 30 years ago and became an immediate Marsh fan with his second Bonhoeffer book, Strange Glory, an essential one), a scholar of and advocate for racial justice (and author of several excellent books on these exact themes, including one co-written with John Perkins called Welcoming Justice) and Director at the Project for Lived Theology at Charlottesville’s UVA, I assumed his story surely included some shift away from evangelicalism and distancing himself from the ugly compromises made by many white evangelicals in the last decades as they’ve drifted from gospel clarity and focused increasingly on right wing politics. When former evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr say that Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with their values voting, what is a somewhat socially progressive evangelical Christian to do? Needing to disavow the weirdness of a shallow God and Country sort of so-called evangelicalism has produced a number of memoirs and a number of serious studies about the value and wisdom – for the sake of the gospel! – to continue to use the phrase evangelicalism. Other books in this recent genre are less about the current state of the evangelical brand, and are artful tellings of the tales of living through what was often a toxic sort of legalism.
We have commended, for instance, the much-discussed Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey as a gripping look at the boyhood and young adulthood and ongoing faith journey set in this complicated and sometimes religiously harmful subculture. As any good memoir, Yancey’s book allows us to look over his shoulder and into his life as he navigated his broken family and harsh faith – it’s an entertaining if intense read; I often say that well-written memoirs provide a reading experience akin to reading great fiction. In some cases, one could hardly make up such astonishing stuff. Let’s face it, regardless of what one thinks about or what relationship one has with a given religious subculture, it makes for great literature.
(By the way, this is part of the appeal of the unforgettable true crime story Under the Banner of Heaven that is now a popular Netflix drama. We are not just drawn in by the grisly and tragic murders, but by the question of what kind of a religion can produce this kind of bad fruit. Especially in the TV series, that is the question the young LDS detective must struggle with. The show is as much about human questions of identity and religion and family and love as it is about cops and danger. And had highly recommended the book (with the subtitle “A Story of Violent Faith” by Jon Krakauer when it came out.)
This is a long way to get to a major point about the exquisitely written story, Evangelical Anxiety. It is, in fact, mostly not about the somewhat predictable question of how a smart young scholar and person of conscience with devout commitments to Christ can abide being am evangelical, given how grubby that phrase has become these days. I was wrong to assume he was talking about that anxiety. (Although not as a memoir, Marsh did explore this already in 2007 with an acclaimed Oxford University Press book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity.) With Charles’s masterful writing chops and his extraordinary mind and learning, it would be fabulous to have a book about his worries, struggles, disagreements, cognitive dissonance, and theological ruminations, about his evangelical past. However, I was wrong about this being that kind of a story, really. It is, in fact, about his real anxiety disorder. In this stunning report that reveals more than I expected, we learn about Marsh’s years of psychotherapy to cope with his nearly debilitating panic attacks and something akin to depression.
Within the opening paragraphs we realize how very well written Evangelical Anxiety is and what an artful reading experience it will be. Wow. Soon enough, we realize that even as some of the themes are what we might first expect – a strict religious background giving way to a more expansive faith, the struggle to understand for oneself the spiritual life in the college and young adult years, the not uncommon journey from sparred down fundamentalist preaching services to a more liturgical (Episcopalian) worship — we soon realize that coping with real anxiety is much of what this book is about. And, well, well, well. What a story it is!
You should know this: Mr. Marsh wrote an earlier autobiographical account of his growing up years and it focused on an exceptional episode in his young life, a life-changing season at his father’s church, and while Evangelical Anxiety is not a sequel or second part of his life story, the remarkable stuff told in that previous one, does inform this new one. He explains those years briefly since it comes up over and again.
In The Last Days: A Son’s Story Of Sin And Segregation At The Dawn Of A New South, written in 2001, Marsh tells about how his father, a good preacher and thoughtful Baptist pastor, realized that there were violent KKK guys in his church, even on his leadership council. The Last Days tells of their horrible crimes, his father’s coming to terms with it. Like many Protestant pastors in those hard years in the South, Reverend Marsh was not an active anti-segregationist nor grossly bigoted. He was, perhaps, the sort of leader who would have realized that King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was, in part, addressed to him. He was a good man and a good father, if conventional in that Southern Baptist setting and slow to come around to the courage needed to confront the likes of Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK who lived near the Marsh’s in Laurel, Mississippi.
The violence in the town, aimed at Blacks, of course, was in the air, and Marsh was not unaware of this fearful texture to daily life. But when his father removed the men of the KKK (and their families) from his church, the violence was aimed at his family as well. Young Marsh — athletic, popular, strong — couldn’t sleep at nights.
In a nutshell – and Marsh describes it with considerable beauty and pathos and understanding and keen insight based on his own decades of studying the civil rights movement in the American south – this consequence, this violence and fear of violence, is the origin of Marsh’s own crippling anxiety attacks.
Yes, he reads literature and theology by authors outside of his evangelical world in high-school and then college; yes he ends up at Harvard Divinity School after Gordon College with some nearly anti-Christian teachers, or so it sounds. Yes, there is this refining and reframing of his faith and church life (perhaps akin to what some today call deconstruction) but all of that, or so Evangelical Anxiety suggests, is colored by the trauma of growing up in a repressive fundamentalist subculture, and of coming of age in a time and way that might suggest his fears are a fallout from his father’s fidelity to the gospel. Charles does not cheaply pat his father and mother on their backs and does not portray himself as collateral damage from their small, if belated, part in the civil rights struggle. But he knows the cost of discipleship in his bones. It drives him to seek help.
And this – oh my – is where the book gets even more captivating. He ends up (to make a colorfully long story of his circuitous path a bit shorter) in Freudian psychotherapy.
Think what you will about the appropriateness of a Biblically-trained evangelical young man heading to the couch to talk about his sexual desires and his mother and such, it is at the heart of this story. In a few spots, the book admits to Marsh’s own awareness of the irony of this (he knows all about Jay Adams and the anti-Freudian teaching from conservative evangelical thinkers who propose more overtly Biblical counseling; golly, he had a meeting with Francis Schaeffer when he was a teen as he sought guidance and direction. The story is made that much more fascinating knowing just how unlikely it was for this young man to take up such therapy.
(One small irritation at this point in the narrative: Marsh has my support in dismissing as inadequate the Bible quoting anti-psychologists in the tradition of Adams and his noetic counseling. Their view seems to me to be a good example of what Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” But surely Marsh knows about the extraordinary Christian scholarship published since the 1980s that illustrate the existence of an intellectually credible and creative movement exploring the integration of faith and the discipline of psychology and the practices of what might be called Christian counseling. Just look at the remarkable bibliography of Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) and their books published by IVP Academic, just for instance. His declarations about evangelicalism’s alleged disinterest in such scholarship struck me as odd.)
As a broke young scholar with a new wife, feeling drawn into therapy, he ends up in a rare situation of doing analysis with a new shrink in a nearly free program in Baltimore. For those who know anything about this, you won’t be surprised that it goes on, almost daily, for years. Some of his breakthroughs and insights are disclosed here although the book never devolves into a mere account of his id and superego. It’s a great memoir, not a document of his therapy. Nonetheless, working on the couch has been a significant part of his life in coping with his disorders, and, well, there it is, written about with candor and wit. It is sharp and at times funny.
As Jemar Tisby puts it:
“Marsh probes the realms of piety and mental health with engrossing prose and naked honesty, showing us how the sacred can be found in literature and on the therapist’s couch. Anyone curious about a better way to navigate mental health and belief will find hope and inspiration in this.”
I do not think I have ever read a book like this. The glimpse into a professional and religious life in which debilitating panic attacks and gripping depression and unusual ticks and so many concerns are described in such detail (without being overly dramatic or maudlin or self-pitying) is rare and so very interesting. I was stunned when I read early on in the book about his first attack. (Sorry for the spoiler alert — I hadn’t seen it coming. It is, no matter, an amazing piece of writing.) If you care about how some people cope with psychological disorder and their subsequent physiological consequences, this book will be illuminating. (Granted, he is from an educated class, a world-famous scholar, and award-winning author and the book is a memoir, not a guidebook, of his particular experience as a professor, academic, writer, and theologian.) I do not think it is a bad thing to say Evangelical Anxiety will be entertaining, a good read, as they say. There were descriptions and well-crafted sentences that just made me shake my head in wonder and there were episodes described that made me laugh out loud. Publisher’s Weekly called it an “endearing and rewardingly unusual account of mental illness and faith.”
Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day says,
“A harrowing book but, weirdly and wonderfully, also a hoot. I kept laughing aloud–and then sighing. A remarkable achievement.”
But, again: Mr. Marsh’s story unfolds against the backdrop of considerable anxiety around the religious questions of leaving behind a strict version of faith; it is, as more than one reviewer observed, connected to the questions about the relationships of the so-called secular and sacred; the split between body and soul, desire and duty. As in the Yancey memoir, moving away from the faith and very worldview of one’s youth, especially if it was a demanding subculture defined as over-and-against all others, can be painful and can create relational ruptures. Fortunately, Marsh’s parents were not toxic or harmful and some of his faith experiences (and the webs and networks of relationships he experiences) were perhaps less caustic that the caricature of this harsh setting might conjure; still, getting severely paddled by high school coaches and terribly shamed by youth group leaders was part of what was considered ordinary in that time in that place.
As Marsh comes of age in the 1970s there is cultural change in the wind, not unrelated to the seismic shifts begun in the 1960s. “The Times They are a Changin’” Dylan sang and the words were prescient. I feel it in my gut as I type it, knowing how I myself snarled out the words with my own cheap guitar in the ‘70s. Marsh reports well how one person and family – including his beloved wife K – negotiated these changes in these times as they moved into their early married years of the 1980s and on. Again, I could not put this book down and was very deeply moved by it all; I can at least say that anyone who is aware of the nature of Protestant life during the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium will find it fascinating.
We need you, dear and gentle reader, to know something else about this stunning memoir. It is honest. Marsh is exceedingly candid about his fears and his failures. Do I need to issue a trigger warning? Perhaps. He is candid, particularly, about his sexuality and, given the way purity culture was made into a fetish in some evangelical circles and how the Biblical teachings not to have sex before marriage were made exceptionally clear and linked to the looming threat of hell in his subculture, it is no wonder, I suppose, that he, uh, had issues.
A scene in Evangelical Anxiety of Charles and his then girlfriend reading wildly together while house-sitting in the home of Elizabeth Elliot of all people (look her up if you don’t know) is so erotically charged I don’t know how they remained chaste. In any case, there is some very frank talk in parts of the book. As a reader with a pretty wide palate for “language” in stories and who doesn’t think that human sexuality needs to be off limits for writers telling about their life story, I still have to say that some of this felt gratuitous. I think an editor should have put her foot down a time or two, even if Publisher’s Weekly enjoyed the “bawdy” parts.
Nonetheless, the book really does need to explore this stuff: it is an integral part of the story. It was the heavy-handed sexual repression combined with the ubiquitous racial violence that helped shape the psyche of a man who realized he could not manage a life in these modern times, as a faithful person, without unpacking it. And, so, he goes there, sharing without shame some intimate details of his life and not so unusual desires.
The very discerning James K.A. Smith called it “at once transgressive and faithful.“ Perhaps that’s it — both transgressive and faithful.
Other early readers also have raved about this long-awaited memoir by Mr. Marsh. We know it may not be for everyone but it is a major book by an important voice, and it was very difficult to put down. I’m happy to tell you about it and hope you’ll send us an order.
There is vivid storytelling, there are remarkable recollections of important stuff, and there is some broad-brush cultural analysis, placing his own journey in the context of the fundamentalist and evangelical world of the past generation, up to and including his own worship experiences today.
The opening page describing in smooth detail the crisp khaki trousers and brand name shirt of the Anglican worship leader presiding at worship, the tasteful praise songs, and the shockingly weird sermon, was so well written and deftly designed, shifting to a line at the end of the page that made tears well up in my eyes, alerted me that this was going to be one great read.
There is also great tenderness in Evangelical Anxiety. Marsh writes about taking his kids to a Christian camp. He describes his love for his mother, including the solace she offered during his fearful nights as a boy. He is deeply remorseful when he has hurt his wife. He struggles with how to relate his own scholarship – he writes about Bonhoeffer, after all – with his own practice of lived discipleship. He holds what he knows to be true about the world, its racism and violence, and is learning how to carry on as a sane and happy person. In a simple passage about finding joy in good things in God’s creation, the spirituality of the ordinary, so to speak, he mentions how his friend, the evangelical, black leader John Perkins likes blue berries. I got a lump in my throat, just such a lovely little line about a man who has suffered much and experienced great fame, Charles’s friend. Many who pick up this book and enter this story will also be struck by Marsh’s great love for literature and the often beautiful way he mentions novels and authors, his intimate relationship with their truths and artful pleasures. I so enjoyed reading about a man I respect and the books he loves and the authors who have informed him.
Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir is one of the important books of the season, and we are eager to promote it. It is my hunch that few religious bookstores will celebrate it – it’s just a bit much for the safe tastes of evangelicals apparently without anxiety. And yet it is so rooted in the religious subculture of the American south, even in the rather elite New England and mid-Atlantic settings into which he later became comfortable, that I’m not sure if the hipster indie stores and the big box secular chains will get it. I hope so. For Hearts & Minds fans and BookNotes readers, I invite you to give it a chance, start a book club, maybe; Charles Marsh is an important scholar and leader you should know and bares much in this gripping new memoir. It is one great read.
This is a bold, beautiful memoir, at once transgressive and faithful. Marsh embodies a theology with the courage to tackle the taboo, including depression and desire, in prose that is evocative and seductive. In the end, we learn that the most astounding grace is found in the God we can tell our secrets. — James K.A. Smith, Calvin University, editor in chief, Image, author of You Are What You Love and On the Road with Saint Augustine
In this beautifully choreographed memoir, Charles Marsh’s lyrical prose dances as he recounts a tormenting anxiety disorder. Eventually he finds solace through years of a masterfully-described psychoanalysis (later supplemented with a bit of Prozac). Evangelical Anxiety is a courageous memoir where Christianity and psychoanalysis –worlds that rarely converge–interweave. — Dinah Miller MD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of Shrink Rap: Psychiatrists Explain Their Work
It’s Not You It’s Everything: What Our Pain Reveals About the Anxious Pursuit of the Good Life Eric Minton (Broadleaf Books) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
Well, I’ve opened a bit of a can of worms with this BookNotes, leading off with my rave review of the aesthetically rich, profound story of the great writer Charles Marsh as he narrates, among other things, his anxiety and panic attacks and depression and his experience of years of psychoanalysis as a way of coping with his religious trauma from his Southern fundamentalist youth. It’s a great read, candid and even shocking, all the more for being so very well written. Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir is, at least in part, about the quest not only for reasonable, radical faith in a secularizing world, but for emotional and psychological wholeness coming from a world of (to swipe the subtitle of her much earlier memoir) “sin and segregation.”) It is a memoir, not a study of counseling or a self-help guide but it does, in ways that are not oblique, explore questions of mental health.
This new Broadleaf book by Eric Minton also explores the quandaries of holding on to mental health these days and it is a stunner. Like Marsh, at least in some significant ways, the author has shifted from a harsh and restrictive religiosity that plagued him in his earlier days. As a former Southern Baptist minister turned therapist, Minton knows well the struggle to clarify (some might say deconstruct) unhealthy faith and discover a more faithful, coherent, graciously Biblical worldview that could shape a well lived life. He, like Marsh, has seen some shit.
What is so very impressive with this engaging book is how the author insists that our own anxieties these days, religious or otherwise, are amplified by the cross pressures of the age. Perhaps it has always been so, but it certainly is now. Trying to conform to a sick culture, he suggests, is part of what is making us so very restless, anxious, prone to depression and ill health.
I do not know (although it has surely been written about) how the weirdness of the Middle Ages affected ordinary people’s self awareness and sense of themselves, or how the early modern or industrial age left its mark on what we now call the psyche. Scholars tell us that common folk hardly had a sense of self in the modern sense of a certain sort of identity in ancient years, which some claim is a relatively recent construction. (One seriously significant study about some of that, by the way, interacting with Philip Reiff and Charles Taylor, is by the often brilliant, if sometimes a bit cranky, Carl R.Trueman, in his hefty Crossway volume, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.)
But, geesh, the writers of the Biblical Psalms sure seemed to have a sense of self, wounded and redeemed as they were.
In any case, we know a bit how society — ideas and forces — influence us. We about the critique of the ticky tacky little boxes and the gray-suited zeitgeist of the corporate man during the post World War II era (and the consciousness raising that spawned the feminist awareness among suburban woman in the 1960s and 70s.) I just started the splendidly enjoyable end of the 20th century social history written as memoir by Bill McKibben (The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon: And What the Hell Happened) and, again, we know that social trends and cultural forces create an ethos that influences and sometimes impacts harshly the mental health of people and families. Again, think of industrialization and urbanization, including the Great Migration, and the very real personal fallout from suburbanization. Or the “cultural amnesia and expressive individualism” Trueman writes about, finding its glory in the romantic notions of the counter culture and the “triumph of the erotic.” Tell me all that doesn’t create some personal angst. Or, simply, consider the tragic loneliness of our time, despite our 24/7 social media access. Maybe it’s like we’re back in Glome, the dark world of Lewis’s Til We Have Faces, a story about love.
The big contention of It’s Not You, It’s Everything, is that there is really hard stuff in the air now, weirdness in the water and our current zeitgeist nearly pushes us into stress and anxiety. From the well-documented influence of social media, the pressure to parent in certain ways (think the pressures of youth sports and the drive to have our kids achieve more and more at younger and younger ages) to our ubiquitous political tensions, the pace of life and shallowness of so much our entertainment (and religion, we might say, drawing on Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, at least) we are overly stimulated, longing for peace, worried about everything. It isn’t just you, it isn’t just me. As Minton the pastor turned therapist says, it’s everything.
I am a fan of It’s Not You, It’s Everything and I am quite sure reading it will be valuable for you, too. It will provoke you to think, to receive new insights; the book is, as public citizen and Christian writer David Dark says, “a profound gift.”
Mintor is a Tennessee troublemaker at least insofar as he names our alienation caused by the go-go-go of our hyper capitalist culture, the harm done by what Saint Dorothy Day called “this filthy rotten system.” He dares to explore how capitalistic pressures to bootstrap and succeed and brand oneself are savaging us. This stuff, written with grace and great kindness, and some nice stories, carries the ring of truth.
(There are hundreds of Christian social ethicists, economists, and public theologians who bring a strong critique of capitalism and our materialistic idols these days, and the harm these idols bring, of course. Just for three fairly recent ones, see Rodney Clapp’s Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age, Bob Goudzwaard’s Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture, or the spectacularly interesting Disarming Romans: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh.)
Nearly anyone doing serious cultural analysis these days needs to grapple with both the personal and the public forces arrayed against our flourishing. Almost anyone doing Christian thinking about anything, in fact, or so it seems to me – considering church ministry, say, or child rearing or evangelism or taking in the news or our worlds of leisure and entertainment or how to undergird our frazzled family lives – has to consider how our personal lives and the mediating social networks and the civic fabric we are woven into, and the larger social architecture of our cultural landscape in which we are situated, are deformed and ill-shaped by forces akin to what the Bible might call “principalities and powers.” To ask, as Minton does, how economic and social forces and the pressures of this post-Christian, late-modern, competitive culture chips away at our joy, our meaning, the wholeness of our lives, eroding what might be more stable in less trying times, should not be controversial. If he quotes some pretty serious social critics and a bunch of medical and psychological studies to help him help us, so be it. Everything solid, after all, does seem to melt into air these days.
And so, this is one provocative, incisive, wide-angled and yet somehow intimately soothing, self-help book. It’s not all big picture lament; he draws nicely on Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle and the fabulous David Dark (especially his Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious.) He quotes artists and shows from pop culture (including a funny story about MC Hammer in the acknowledgments, which certainly dates his coming of age.) He has a few Cracker Barrel mentions and there’s that lovely story about the luminous night with fireflies. He obviously has Mr. Rogers at the ready, all right alongside Cornel West and James Baldwin. With the skills of a pastoral counselor and the training of a rather radical social critic and the colorful storytelling chops of a good ol’ boy, counselor Minton brings it all together in a book unlike any I’ve read in a while. And who doesn’t need a bit of help just trying to make sense of, well, all of this. You know.
I like how author Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (who wrote a book called Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age) observes that Minton “challenges us to turn our anxiety and depression back out into the world.” Rogers-Valughn continues, saying how the book “illuminates a path beyond the hypercapitalist morass in which we find ourselves today.”
As I’ve said, it isn’t exactly rocket science to admit that our society is somewhat to blame for our weirdness these days, although knowing how to adjudicate that and what to do about it takes the gifts of the Spirit and a good bit of genius. I think Minter has a lot of both.
Here are the key chapters, framed by lovely stories of his youth, from being afraid of swimming and the rural American pastime of catching fireflies (or what recalled lightening bugs) in a jar:
- Why Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? How Children Became Investments
- Why Is Everyone Yelling on the Internet? How People Became Brands
- Why Does Heaven Seem So Out of Reach? How Capitalism Became Religion
- Why Does God Seem So Depressed? How Christianity Became Anesthetic
- What If We Can’t Keep Doing This? How to Survive the Death of Your God
- What If We Weren’t Afraid of Our Feelings? How to Listen to Our Pain as an Act of Resistance
- What If We Weren’t Afraid of God? How to Reparent Ourselves
- What If We Weren’t Afraid of Dying? How to Do More Than Live Forever
- What If We Weren’t Afraid of Each Other? How to Be Complicated
Here is what others have said about It’s Not You, It’s Everything.
With It’s Not You, It’s Everything, Eric Minton gives us a profound gift, inviting us into a genuinely therapeutic space where we can regard our own stretched-to-the-limit bandwidth with care, compassion, and good humor. There is difficult work to be done, but we can meet the task of seeing ourselves clearly and candidly. It can even be a joy. — David Dark, author of Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
In It’s Not You, It’s Everything, Eric Minton presents a compassionate and uncompromising assessment of the forces driving our spiritual anxiety and guides us toward questions that peel back the source of our discontent. In this book for people who can’t take much more, Minton offers us a hope with weight –hope we can hold on to. — Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor and author of How to Have an Enemy and Fire by Night
In It’s Not You, It’s Everything, Eric Minton sets out to delineate the ways the modern life does not support our thriving as spiritual, emotional, and embodied human beings, and to offer us a bold alternative way of being. He succeeds on both counts. With humor, vulnerability, and reference to a multitude of writers, activists, and scholars, Minton digs deep into what it would take for all of us to actually be okay. — Jessica Kantrowitz, author of The Long Night, Blessings for the Long Night, and, 365 Days of Peace
The Lord is My Courage: Stepping Through the Shadows of Fear Toward the Voice of Light K.J. Ramsey (Zondervan) $22.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39 RELEASING JUNE 14, 2020
Some of you may know the extraordinary book that we promoted a year or so ago by K.J Ramsey on her life and faith with chronic pain entitled This Too Shall Pass: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers. It was very well-written, honest and raw, and oddly inspiring as she learned to name the hardships of her painful life, With a brokenness that in one way or another we all have experienced she tells of learning to trust the God of covenant and grace known in the person of Jesus. It was a book I needed and that we still recommend for those facing chronic illnesses or other ongoing hardships.
This brand new one – due out next week, so you can pre-order it now, at our secure order form by clicking on the “order” link below – is, I might say, farther along and deeper in. It is not a sequel, really, although it, too, is written in the style of a memoir in order to help us all grow in our capacity to trust God, knowing we are held, accepted, loved. This powerful book, The Lord Is My Courage, is truly useful for anyone, but I’ll say three things about it that might help you know if it is one you need, now, at least.
Firstly, Ramsey is a trauma-informed, licensed professional counselor. As a person of deep faith she describes herself not only as a therapist but “a writer whose work offers space to see every part of our souls and stories as sacred.” She holds degrees from Covenant College and Denver Seminary and she is gifted at sharing stories in a way that invites us into their mysteries, encourages us, helps. She seems to have the heart of a poet and is a bit of a visionary, it seems, but she knows what she’s doing. Believe me.
Secondly, this book is connected to and perhaps grounded in her own story of experiencing a dysfunctional congregation and a bullying pastor, going through what now some name as spiritual abuse. If Charles Marsh in his literary memoir, above, narrates his anxiety produced by growing up in an era of racial trauma and a restrictive fundamentalism, Ramsey and her husband experienced (more recently) a toxic religious culture and a harsh faith style in a church that, as she describes it, was complicit with cruel, crushing leaders. As she stepped away from that wilderness of religious trauma, she “discovered that courage is not the absence of anxiety but the practice of trusting we will be held and loved no matter what.” This book, arranged around but not fixated upon her experience of religious abuse, is about helping readers cultivate courage, especially when fear overshadows our lives. As the back cover asks, “How do we hear the Voice of Love when hate and harm shout loud?”
How, indeed? Well, part of the answer for K.J. is to search the Scriptures and to find oneself within their redemptive arc, learning to not only embrace the hope of the Kingdom but to encounter the God of the story. One way to do that, a time-honored way, is to dig deep into one text. For her, in this marvelous new book, it is the beloved 23rd Psalm. The Lord is My Courage is a play on the first famous line of Psalm 23 and her book explores much about the contemporary application of God’s heart as a shepherd.
Perhaps you have read a few books on this famous text (although, curiously, it is so well-loved and familiar that not many actually study it.) We were quite happy when Dallas Willard’s book (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23) came out, notable for bringing very deep truths in a readable way from this almost too-common Psalm. Similarly – but with a whole lot more psychological drama and edgy application – Ramsey’s The Lord is My Courage brings fresh insight from the Hebrew poem, helping us who have great fears and great needs learn to be brave as we trust God the good shepherd.
And, wow, K.J. does offer some fresh insights. (Her comments about “the rod” that the Psalms says is to be a comfort is worth the price of the book even if she is not the first to explain it so helpfully.) She’s got other good interpretations and creative applications, too. Fresh as her take on much of all this is, and as contemporary as her style (and story) are, Ramsey is drawing on good, good stuff. She knows the irreplaceable Ken Bailey’s work, she draws on N.T Wright and Eugene Peterson and Kathleen Norris, one of her favorites. It’s lovely to see how she uses Julian of Norwich and contemporary Calvin scholar Julie Canlis and the amazing Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, not to mention her mentor Kelly M. Kapic (whose 2017 book, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering informed Ramsey’s first, and whose recent You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News is really worth reading.) It’s not every book that is so Biblically astute, so deeply spiritual, aware of contemporary neuroscience and psychology (she quotes a book about the Vegus nerve and ruminates on polyvagal theory, for Pete’s sake) and yet is a page turner, in part because of her own heavy story. All this makes for quite a read. The foreword is by Curt Thompson (author, most recently, of The Soul of Desire) which is quite an honor for any author and indicates the book’s wisdom and value. We are very glad to get to recommend it, now.
We are not alone in trusting this author and commending her work. Here are just two of many that we invite you to read carefully. Just these blurbs are inspiring!
The message those who suffer hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help, which only adds shame, guilt, and a suffocating sense of powerlessness. When we are desperate, we need not advice to act on, but a promise from God that he will be with us no matter what. If you have ever felt like darkness is your only companion, you won’t find yourself blamed in this book. You’ll find yourself pursued and embraced by the patient and compassionate love of a God who meets you in your pain. God does not command, ‘Heal thyself!’ but declares, ‘You will be healed!”– Justin S. Holcomb, minister; seminary professor; author, God with Us: 365 Devotions on the Person and Work of Christ
I trust people who have suffered to speak the deepest wisdom. K.J. Ramsey is such a person. In The Lord Is My Courage, Ramsey comes to us as a therapist with acute pastoral sensibilities who does not mince words about the destruction self-centered, power-hungry undershepherds unleash on individual parishioners and the wider church. But she does not stop there. She gently leads us through Psalm 23 and showcases God’s love for and delight in us — our belovedness — as revealed throughout the psalm. As we wind our way through Psalm 23, Ramsey offers us grace and direction as we seek to become whole, especially when we are dealing with pain and shame related to abusive shepherds and churches. Ramsey deftly demonstrates that God is our good and beautiful shepherd seeking our flourishing, and not some tyrant feigning godliness who merely uses and abuses people for personal gain. Listen to her. — Marlena Graves, author, The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself
Good Morning Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery Catherine Gildiner (St. Martin’s Press) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
Although this recent volume has gotten rave, big-time reviews and is a fabulous chronicle of the life of a therapist, narrating the life situations of a handful of her clients over the course of a few years, we were first attracted to this merely because the author is such a great, great writer. Her own several memoirs of her eccentric girlhood, her coming of age and young adult years (Too Close to the Falls, After the Falls, and Coming Ashore) were New York Times bestsellers and among the favorite books Beth and I read a few years ago. If we ever got talking about memoirs – from James Carroll’s An American Requiem to The Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit, to Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me, to Just Mercy, Uneducated, and When Breath Becomes Air to Heavy, Hollywood Boulevard and Kin – surely Catherine Gildiner’s odd and entertaining tales would be on our lips. We loved this girl and her feisty stories. In fact, I think I have to pick up those memoirs again — they are that good.
Here she is less outrageously upbeat (these are not her stories, really, but her story of working with these patience as a real life therapist in Toronto) but her wit and eye for clever observation remains. What prose! She is generous and gracious as she invites us to see, really see and care about, the people’s lives she is telling us about in all their need and painful glory. As Paula McLain (herself a skilled and admired memoirist) says, the real topic here is, “heroism – writ large and with poignant specificity in five unforgettable patient’s lives. Good Morning Monster,” she continues, “will bolster your faith in human endurance, and make you root more fiercely for us all.”
At least that is the hope. There is some heavy stuff here, and, frankly, may not be for everyone.
This book really is captivating for those willing to sit through these sessions with Dr. Gildiner. She’s an expert therapist, apparently, and there are moments that shine (although I know some think she is off base on occasion; that may be.) I do admit, though, I kept wondering what she’d do with the evangelical anxiety of Charles Marsh or the spiritual abuse and physical pain of K.J. Ramsey, and what she would do differently if she took Eric Minton’s “it’s everything” cultural critique seriously.
Valerie Hemingway (speaking of powerful, well-written memoirs, she wrote Running with the Bulls: My Year with the Hemingways) calls it “a brilliant piece of work, both heart rending and chilling. I was moved to tears.” I see that.
Here is how the publisher explained this book:
In this fascinating narrative, therapist Catherine Gildiner’s presents five of what she calls her most heroic and memorable patients. Among them: a successful, first generation Chinese immigrant musician suffering sexual dysfunction; a young woman whose father abandoned her at age nine with her younger siblings in an isolated cottage in the depth of winter; and a glamorous workaholic whose narcissistic, negligent mother greeted her each morning of her childhood with ‘Good morning, Monster.’
Each patient presents a mystery, one that will only be unpacked over years. They seek Gildiner’s help to overcome an immediate challenge in their lives, but discover that the source of their suffering has been long buried.
Seeing into the lives of others is why we read memoirs, and why the sorts of books named above are so very valuable. We learn more, I think, from observing and leaning in to the human condition, messy as it may be, than by just learning information in our heads about self-improvement. We are what we love, as Jamie Smith says (channeling Saint Augustine) in his marvelous book by the same name, and to grow as a person surely means to learn to love ourselves in our human condition, with our wounds and our needs and our desires. And, of course, to learn to love others as they, too, both mirror God’s image and stand broken and hurting. We’re all in this same boat, really, so reading widely into the healing journey can help.
Dr. Gildiner has given us a very great resource here, then, an exercise in learning to care, a book that unfolds like a collection of short stories, the sometimes gut-wrenching drama and real pain and hope of each, in each, culminating in insights gleaned. It reads like fiction, almost, as good memoir does (which into say it is not mere reporting or recounting notes for these sessions, although there is a touch of that.) Good Morning Monster is a gift and will be very valuable for some of us, entertaining for others. It, like the others above, is a very good read.
I am going to end this BookNotes with a bit of a bonus review, a quick announcement about a small book that might seem different that these about those going through often painful psychological traumas, from serious anxiety about faith to stressful restlessness in our hectic culture to emotional profound disorders. Our human hurts and foibles, our misplaced loves and complicated stories make for impressive reading in the hands of good writers. These memoirs and observations are interesting to read and we hope you enjoy them. But if we who are Christians believe God came close to us in the person of Christ and that He was a truly human person, than Christ’s own identity and personhood is good to consider alongside these contemporary memoirs. Check this out, a brand new contemporary edition of an old bit of writing from a century ago.
The Emotional Life of Our Lord B.B Warfield (Crossway) $8.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $7.19
B.B. Warfield, you may know (although I suppose many may not) was a exceptionally important, highly regarded professor at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851-1921, before the modernist vs liberal debates that tore many old seminaries apart in the early 20th century. He was, as they say, old school, and Old Light, I guess, meaning he wasn’t fond of the emotionalism and sensationalism of the “new light” revivalism sweeping America in those years. By the way, he spoke out against racial discrimination while the Principal of the seminary and was known for his “emancipationist” views. It was B.B.Warfield’s large presence at Princeton that inspired Abraham Kuyper to visit there in 1898 and deliver his now famous “Stone Lectures” about Calvinism as a whole world-and-life perspective.
In any case, Warfield’s love for the Bible and his love for Christ and his role as a leading theologian known around the world, then, caused him to write a bit, to put it mildly. His “complete works” came to ten big hardback volumes, but, oddly this essay was not included. In the foreword to this new, very handsome, pocket sized edition Sinclair Ferguson calls it a “hidden jewel” — hidden, because it is not well known and a jewel because of the tender and vital topic, namely, the emotional life of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. It was first published (with tons of academic footnotes to then current books and obscure Hebrew and Greek resources, that were nicely omitted in this edition) in 1912. This is the first time, as far as I know, that it has been available in a stand alone little volume. Kudos to Crossway (and this whole series of “Crossway Short Classics” that also include other jewels such as Spurgeon’s Encouragement for the Depressed, Thomas Chalmer’s The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, and one with two of Francis Schaeffer’s sermons from No Little People. See the whole list here. Naturally, we stock them all.
I hope this little Warfield volume — which I first heard of years ago from my friend Steve Garber who has found it helpful in many ways and cites it sometimes — will remind us all that Jesus, our brother, felt things. As a man in broken times, he knew, what these above authors know: that it’s not you, it’s everything. That to love well and live well, we must somehow attend to our deepest feelings, including our sense of our grief for the wounds of the world, and, as we say nowadays, feel the feels. Jesus did so. Warfield, in a time and place and culture very different than ours, noticed it in a way many do not. His part on Jesus’s compassion and tears is remarkable to to this day even though written with a sober reverence that may sound a little formal to modern ears. Still, we recommend The Emotional Life of Our Lord, from 1912. Who knew? Enjoy.
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For many of us on these warmer summer evenings, some hard-earned bucks on a couple of good books ends up being pretty darn good entertainment value, too. These are captivating and fabulous books, complex and wise, mostly, as they explore human and heart-rending topics. From religious anxiety through healing and finding new courage, It’s not just you, it’s everything. Grab a couple of books at our discounted prices and dive in. There’s a lot to learn.
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