“Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life” and 14 books on Jesus (to read after Christmastime.)

We here at Hearts & Minds hope you are happy celebrating the twelve days of Christmas. Before the dumb “Merry Christmas” wars made me self-conscious, I loved saying ‘Happy holidays.” Not only as a consideration to Jews or other non-Christians who celebrate this time of year but because we do have Advent, and Christmas, and the 12 Days, a couple of Feast Days in there, (my birthday, too) and the ringing in of the New Year. Hard as these times are for many of us, laden with disappointment and heavy with hearts sad about the state of the world, there are some festivities to be had. Whether you celebrate large or small, with family or mostly alone, we hope you are well and that this season is meaningful, maybe even with some delight. We can hope.

Even if we aren’t obeisant about it, most of us get that there is a flow to the church calendar, which is essentially a year-long reflection on the life of Christ. From annunciation through birth, baptism and transformation, passion and death, resurrection and ascension (and on to Pentecost, celebrating the birthday of the church, as some call it) the calendar orients us less towards New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and Valentine’s Day and Tax Day and the 4th of July but to  pivotal moments in the life of our Savior.

It makes sense that if Christ is who the carols say He is, then everything must reflect “the wonders of His love” as “heaven and nature sings.” This includes even how we think about time and the flow of our days. It might even shape our reading habits a bit…

James K.A. Smith ruminates on this with sophistication and candor, sharing his philosophically-tinged insights about the importance of a Christian view of time in his major work that came out early this fall, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now (Brazos Press; $24.99 – OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99.) It isn’t on the church calendar as such, but is a book I had to mention in this little BookNotes preamble as it is so framing and foundational for this essential aspect of our faith, knowing how to be in time. We are the kind of creatures, he observes, who remember, and who have the capacity to hope. He worries that we often experience “temporal dislocation” and live as if our faith is nowhen (a play on the word nowhere.) It is a deep, extraordinary book and I’ll be celebrating it soon as one of the top releases of 2022 when I post our BookNotes “Best Books” column.

I bring all this up not just to say happy Christmas-time and joyous Epiphany (and suggest we give gifts during that celebration, since that is when Jesus got his first Christmas presents from his wise visitors from the East.) It is also to say that on the heels of these occasions, most liturgical calendars and church year schedules jump to the Sunday that commemorates the Baptism of our Lord.

Which is a long-winded way of saying this: we can use this occasion when the text point us to John the Baptist and Christ’s own baptism by considering our own. That is, we can read up on the sacrament that is, frankly, more important than most realize.

And boy, do I have a book for you. Living Under Water is one of my favorite new books about faith and discipleship, spiritual formation and theology, nicely written with plenty of stories, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. After that, I’ll list over a dozen books which help us explore the person of Jesus, the meaning of the incarnation, and the call to follow Christ; not a bad segue after Christmas, eh?

In one of my Advent BookNotes lists I suggested in passing that folks might want to order On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasias. Nobody did, so I’ll revisit that and a handful of other books that remind us who this person is that we celebrate as God-With-Us, the baby King of the Cosmos.

But first, one of my favorite books of the year, Living Under Water. 

Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life Kevin J. Adams (Eerdmans) $19.99                 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99

I loved this book for several reasons. I hope you’ll find these reasons compelling but even if you don’t, it is a wise and good book that I am sure will benefit both ordinary Christian people and pastors, too, maybe especially. It is reflective enough to be nearly a spirituality book but with enough stories about congregational life that it would be a good read for any congregation or parish. It is delightfully ecumenical in the very best sense, drawing on Orthodox writers and stories from Assembly of God pastors and Baptists both rural and urban; the author is Reformed but started his cool California CRC congregation as a very creative, evangelical church plant. He is mainline but spirited, orthodox but open-minded. He cares about serious Christian practice within the faith community and he knows that this simply must equip us to be God’s workers in the world. He is not afraid to draw out some of the specific issues that we must face when, as we say in the classic baptismal ritual, when we proclaim that we will “renounce evil.”  He’s my kind of guy.

Here are seven big reasons I really value Living Under Water. Besides Adams’s well-honed gift of being a good writer and the clever, evocative title, which is a big win for starters.

FIRST I’ve mentioned that Pastor Adams is ecumenical. This is important, a matter of fidelity to the gospel, and good for all of us. You may not know Alexander Schmemann, but you really should and Adams cites him nicely. You may not know much about Roman Catholic practices or free-church Pentecostals, or Lutheranism, but here you get to hear Adam’s nicely informative name-dropping of church leaders as well as first hand conversations with pastoral colleagues telling how they do things. This is a delight and really helpful. I found myself feeling more loyal to the big body of Christ, despite our different styles and convictions, and these days, this is a very good thing.

You are, I bet, longing for a better sort of faith experience in your church and in your life, one that is somehow enriched, but, rooted, probably, within your own tradition; this book will be an ally on your journey. Your own faith will be enhanced from his many diverse citations, quotes, and stories, all shared with considerable open-mindedness. These kinds of books are all too rare, and I applaud Adams for his graciousness. (It comes as no surprise, really, that he is a program affiliate at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and even got a grant to take a sabbatical to travel and interview various pastors and church leaders from the Louisville Institute and the Lilly Endowment.) He thanks John Witvolet, which speaks ecumenical volumes in my book.

SECONDLY, I think it is wise to read books that are knowledgeable about church history and the broader discussions about faithful life and practice across denominations and time. Adams is the sort of writer that can with whimsy and grace offer glimpses of historical theology without it being boring or dry. As Cornelius Plantinga puts it in his charming foreword, “Kevin has done his historical research.” Plantinga also says, “You wouldn’t necessarily think of a book on baptism as interesting – let alone fascinating. To me, this one was.” Yep, historical theology made compellingly rich and even fascinating.

THIRDLY,  Living Under Water is a book chock-full of stories. This makes in touching, both entertaining and powerfully gripping at times. I chuckled and I wiped away tears. I shook my head in disbelief (well, not really disbelief, as I, too, have seen some pretty wild stuff in my years as a church guy.) I nodded a lot, saying, yes, yes, yes, I’ve seen that. Or, wow, I wish I’d seen that. There’s a lot to learn and every few pages I kept wishing I could share this with pastors I know who long for greater liturgical integrity in their rituals and greater depths of discipleship in their church circles. This book shows, through realistic stories, how this (usually) slow, transforming work gets done. As he makes clear, Adams is sure that deepening our teaching about Baptism will help our congregations find renewal and clarity about being followers of Christ, but he gets at it by storytelling, mostly.

FOURTHLY, Living Under Water makes a few very important points, mostly focusing on our identity. That is, Baptism is that ritual that bequests to us a new identity and we are no longer firstly a Republican or a Democrat, not even a Presbyterian or Anglican, a mainliner or evangelical, an American or Russian or Mexican or whatever. We are baptized in the name of the Triune God who adopts us into His church. This is the most fundamental reality, the core truth of who we are as baptized believers. We are given a “baptismal ordination” and we put on “baptismal clothes.”  This tell us who and whose we are.

It strikes me that there are those who talk about conversion and salvation as a thing we “do” (receive Christ as savior, recite a “sinner’s prayer” or whatever.) And there are those who think it is is a thing we come to understand (being able to articulate the ideas of atonement and justification.) And, again, there are those who don’t really do any of that, that just run congregational programing and hope some of it sort of rubs off. For those who are revivalistic to a fault, or those who overly intellectualize conversion, or those that don’t really face profound spiritual transformation at all, this book will help restore balance and a smidgeon of helpful theology, experienced through this liturgical ritual laden with lasting implications. He says all this much better than I do, but I hope you get my hope: this book will offer a correction or reorientation to our language and habits about conversion, church life, discipleship, spiritual formation, and such. My hunch is most of us need this revitalization of language and images and could draw on baptismal insights quite helpfully.

FIFTHLY, the book explores the best practices and creative ways to get towards a meaningful baptismal rite. It does not attempt to resolve the differences of opinion about the best method or age to baptize and while Adams baptizes infants,  even families, he actually does a lot of immersion baptisms of youth and adults. The stories of these are often deeply moving (and often entertaining) as he tells the stories of those who longed to be washed clean in the bath.

Naturally, Adams makes much of the Biblical, theological, and ceremonial significance of the notion of going down into the waters to death and arising with newness of life. (Did you know that that in the early church many baptismal fonts were shaped like coffins? Wow, talk about serious business! One chapter is entitled “Drowning in a Coffin.”) He ponders the preparation needed before a good baptism and with healthy open-mindedness describes those with long and hefty catechisms and those with scant prep. He insists that the best traditions all describe how the ritual is formational and how we must underscore that in our congregational cultures. He shows some good ways and some not so good ways to pursue this.

(Call this point 5.5 but along with these good baptismal practices, almost inadvertently, he tells stories of what can only be called evangelism and congregational renewal. People want to get baptized because they’ve come to belong to a faith community and they now have come to belief. The stories of the often-slow process of folks showing curiosity about God, a desire to be apart of a congregation, and longing to cross over the line of faith, so to speak, and desire baptism, is inspiring and a helpful reminder for any church that is wishing to deepen their own outreach to seekers and their ministry with the unchurched. Afraid of the “e-word”? Read Living Under Water; it might help.)

SIXTH, there are several important chapters about abuses of the sacrament. He made me laugh reminding me of an old Simpson’s episode when Bart and Lisa are nearly baptized against the families will (by, of course, Ned Flanders) but he nearly made me weep in telling of folks he has met who have deep distrust of congregational rituals because they were foisted almost cruelly upon them as children or youth. Lord have mercy. There are several chapters of different sorts of abuse and it is touching and good to consider.

SEVENTH. Yes, a seventh reason to read Living Under Water. It is the way in which he weaves in what I might call a world-and-life view and a faithful bit of cultural criticism. That is, the sacrament of baptism has often been seen as sentimental and lovely, whether done in a genteel font or an outdoor swimming pool. But Adams reminds us that Christ is Lord of all areas of life and a deep awareness of our Kingdom identity will necessarily lead us to what might end up being countercultural values in the worlds of politics, social concern and racial justice issues. Without overstating things, he goes there.

Liturgy shapes life, of course. This theme is a great gift and while it is carefully explored, it is a powerful contribution. This world belongs to God and – guess what? – in some streams of the church baptism is almost considered as a exorcism, casting out idolatry and brokenness, restoring us to our proper, creational role in a good (if fallen) world. Baptism, in this view, help situate us within the unfolding Biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

His stuff on race was especially well done, and I’d advise a good reading of this for almost any sort of church. Further, he has a section on the famous (but not often reasonably explored) insight that baptism is connected to healing. There are some bits in that chapter that I do not want to tell you about as the surprise will grip you. His missional sense is that this primal Christian ritual truly makes a difference as “God is seeding shalom” (in the worlds of Leanne Van Dyk on the back cover.)

I wish I had time to lift long quotes from Living Under Water. You will underline stuff and if you have a book club study of it, I’m sure your participants will each find lovely or challenging portions to discuss. There’s a lot there in 13 lively chapters. The last talks about “the baptized imagination” and is a splendid, big ending. I didn’t want this book to be over and am happy to suggest it to you.

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I have created other lists of books about Jesus (HERE, for instance, are 20 titles; or read my review of Diana Butler Bass’s fabulous Freeing Jesus, now out in paperback, HERE.) I could do others. There are so many that are well done for ordinary folks (and plenty of scholarly ones as well.) I think my all time favorite book on the enormous subject is The Incomparable Christ, in part because it covers so much ground, so well. Let us know if we can help find something right for you. Here are some mostly recent ones that come to mind that help us ponder what Christmas has wrought — the Son of Mary, God incarnate, born into the world.

On the Incarnation  Saint Athanasias (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) $17.00        OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60

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On the Incarnation Saint Athanasias (Whitaker House) $12.99                                     OUR SALE PRICE = $10.39

This is one of the most enduring books in church history, written importantly in the fourth century, and one that ought to be considered by many of our BookNotes readers. The St. Vladimir’s Seminary edition is nicer, compact, with the famous preface by C.S. Lewis (who affirmed, as we know, reading older books.) There is also a long introduction by editor John Behr. SVS Press is Russian Orthodox and they make very impressive volumes; this one is in their “Popular Patristics Series” of which we carry many.

The second version listed is a few dollars cheaper, a different translation, slightly abridged, I think, drawing from a translation by a religious woman of the Community of St, Mary the Virgin and first published by MacMillan in the 1940s. It is by a more fundamentalist publisher, on cheaper paper, but the type is a bit bigger. Not a bad choice.

Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth William Willimon (Abingdon) $15.99               OUR SALE PRICE = $12.79

This is a fine little book in the fantastic “Belief Matters” series. (Our friend and regular customer Kenneth Loyer did the one called Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us, by the way.) The series seems to get authors with theological chops and invites them to write a basic primer on a complicated topic. It attempts to show that by “thinking more clearly about faith, persons can love God more fully, live with confidence, and change the world.” No pressure, but it’s true. Belief does matter and knowing a bit about doctrine as it makes a difference in our lives, can be incredibly helpful.

Willimon is one of the most lively mainline pastors writing today and while he has done massive books (on Karl Barth, say, or preaching, or Barth’s preaching, for that matter) this is as succinct as he has been. The book has an easy-to-read print size and is less than 100 pages. Yet, this mystery (that Jesus is fully human and fully divine) is shown to be a bedrock truth of the faith and a great promise of God to be with us.

I love this summary of the book, and the warning not to read it. Ha.
Will Willimon has given us a fine gift: a thoughtful and provocative look at the Incarnation. At the core of this narrative, and at the center of the book, is the commanding figure of Jesus, once again overthrowing expectations, defying glib explanations, calling followers, forging a radically new community. If you are looking for a soothing devotional manual, don’t read this book, because this is instead a whitewater, wind-in-the-face adventure of the spirit.  — Thomas Long, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Veiled in Flesh: The Incarnation: What It Means and Why It Matters Melvin Tinker (IVP-UK) $18.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19

The first half of this serious lay-person’s guide to the incarnation is a study of the book of Hebrews. “This grounds the doctrine in Scripture and works through some of the theological and pastoral implications,” he says.

The second part goes deeper, “drawing on systematic and historical theology to tease out what the doctrine means and why it is vital to the life and health of the church.” As you will understand, this leads to a bit of reflection on the Trinity and even the atonement. Tinker is Senior Minister of St John Newland, Hull, UK and a respected, evangelical speaker. Nice endorsements on the back are from popular writer Tim Chester and Gordon Conwell scholar, David Wells.

God Will Be All in All: Theology through the Lens of Incarnation Anna Case-Winters (WJK) $30.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00

I have not read this but it looks intriguing and, to be honest, we just don’t know of anything like it. In an ecumenical Christmastide list of books about incarnation, this has to be listed. Thomas Jay Oord says it “elucidates God’s incarnation in mind-blowing and life-enhancing ways.”  He thinks she is on to something and that she makes a compelling case “for how best to understand God with us. The implications of her views are deep and wide.” She is known for being a bit of an iconoclast and is respected for serious ecumenical work for the PC(USA) serving the church in conversations towards Christian unity.

Listen carefully to Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor Emeritus (of theology and ethics) at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who writes:

This book does just about everything right. It offers a courageous and resounding defense of Christianity’s two most powerful ideas: The Trinity and the incarnation. It combines feminist, womanist, and liberationist insights necessary for any credible theology in an age of Black Lives Matter. Most of all, it demystifies the jargon but reawakens the mystery of the church’s vision of a creation overflowing with the transforming grace of our loving God! God Will Be All in All is a great choice as an introductory text or as a pastor’s self-guided refresher course.

On Earth as in Heaven: Daily Wisdom for Twenty-first Century Christians N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $29.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99

One can hardly name a more prominent and, in our view, delightfully creative and orthodox, New Testament scholar than the internationally known, UK Bishop and historian, Tom Wright. He goes way back with one of my pals, Brian Walsh, and has written dozens of books both academic and popular. He brings a certain Kingdom vision to his work on Jesus and has captured the attention of the scholarly guild by insisting on the historical facts of the resurrection. He has captured the attention of the church — evangelical and mainline — for insisting that this Jesus is Lord of the creation and is bringing restoration to the world, a project we get to be a part of. His missional vision and his Biblical teachings, informed by historical study of first century Judaism, make his many big volumes exceedingly important.

His popular level books on Jesus — think of Simply Jesus or How God Became King or, drawing on John, Broken Signposts — are true favorites of mine.

This nice, hardback volume that came out last years is a daily reader, a devotional that allows you to dip into excerpts from his books day by day for a year. That in itself is terrific and makes On Earth as in Heaven a very useful resource, but what makes it genius is that the book’s editor (Tom’s son, Oliver) arranged the excerpts in somewhat of an an order, paralleling the liturgical calendar. It follows the life of Jesus for a month, and then has excerpts of the implications of that aspect of Christ’s life in the following month. For instance, following readings on the Ascension, there are readings on power. After Lent, interestingly, there is freedom. Following the Advent season are readings on justice. It makes great sense.

Curiously — and it, too, makes great sense — the book starts us off in Easter. That really is the “new year” for believers and Wright’s work on the resurrection obviously is his strongest suit. So this daily reader, in a way, starts in the Spring. Naturally, you can dip in and start any time you want — perhaps in the sections bout Christmas (followed by a month or so of lush and thoughtful explorations about “truth.” )

On Earth includes readings about contemporary Christian ethics and what we might call public theology. But most is grounded by and circled around the readings about Jesus. It’s a great book, a great primer for reading about Christ and a great primer for learning about the important work of N.T. Wright.

A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics John Dickson (Zondervan) $18.99       OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19

I have highlighted this before so I will be brief. This is a compact sized paperback that is truly fabulous. (Tim Keller says “I can’t recommend this book enough.”) It is, as the title suggests, good “for doubters” but it really is for nearly anyone – believers or skeptics, those who know Christ well or those who are unfamiliar. It is a systematic guidebook written in nice prose, with clear and clean categories and chapters, making the case for who Jesus claimed to be and what the Bible says about Him.

There are some opening chapters that I loved (“Imaginations”, which explores our visions and longings for such a Person and how we have often poorly “made Him in our own image,” and “Sources”, which lays out some of the technical and historical data about what we know and how reliable our written accounts are.) From there it covers various aspects of Jesus’s life and work with some further chapters on his preference for the lowly and poor, the meaning of his death, the claims of resurrection, his subversion of Caesar’s empire. There’s a rousing and beautiful short chapter showing Christ’s own relationship with God. That’s called “His Oneness with the Almighty.” It’s a good thing to read and ponder right after Christmas, I think.

This is interesting and fair, intriguing and balanced, all informed by ancient history, primary sources, and a robust awareness of the implications of all that Jesus did and said. It is not manipulative or preachy, let alone argumentative, but it is, shall we say, “eye-opening.” A great little book.

Confronting Jesus: 9 Encounters with the Hero of the Gospels Rebecca McLaughlin (Crossway Books) $14.99   OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99

Ms McLaughlin has her PhD from Cambridge and is an award-winning author, most famously for Confronting Christianity which was named Christianity Today’s 2020 winner in their “Beautiful Orthodoxy” category. She has a heart to reach the skeptic and unchurched, is aware of serious questions of postmodernity (and postmodernism) but has a fairly strict, orthodox angle. (One small book she did for the Gospel Coalition is called The Secular Creed which draws on the likes of Carl Trueman for punchy cultural exegesis.)

This new book offers reflections on the eyewitness accounts within the gospels which illuminate Jesus’s identity. It is good for those who are exploring Christianity, perhaps for the first time, or the first time seriously, or if you just (as J.D. Greear puts it) “want to learn something more about the beauty of our Savior.”

Listen to this lovely endorsement by Rev. Irwyn Ince, urban pastor and Coordinator of “Mission to America” for the PCA, and author of the excellent book on the multi-ethnic church, Beautiful Community:

Rebecca McLaughlin has done us a kindness by laying out the beauty of Jesus with clarity and conviction. Bring your questions and, through these pages, find Jesus ready, willing, and able to answer.

The Nazarene: Forty Devotions on the Lyrical Life of Jesus Michael Card (IVP) $16.00                       OUR SALE PRICE = $12.80

You may recall when Michael Card, musician extraordinaire, Bible scholar and teacher, graced us with his presence here in Dallastown. We partnered with a local church, had tons of great food, and as Michael played and spoke, I got to interview him. (Talk about nervous! But he’s a good guy and played along with my curious questions and our awed local crowd.)

What brought Mike to us was not really to do a full concert but to promote a book project he was working on. We’ve stocked his many books over the years (and there are a lot) but a few years back he did a set of four commentaries on the gospels. They were called the “Biblical Imagination” series and in them he did typical commentary stuff – informed exegesis of Greek words, lucid explanations of key notions, savvy reminders of the ancient cultural background and the like – but added a small element of creativity, of engaging not just the mind but the imagination. These artful writing projects were ideal for those who wanted to study the Bible in a way that yielded transformed affections and wilder, more Christ-like lifestyles, creative but bounded by Scripture. He wants us to imagine the Kingdom.

This recent book, The Nazarene, is, in a way, a lovely glimpse into the imaginative rendering of Jesus from the pen of Mike Card. It is even more rooted in his work as a poet and songwriter that the commentaries, it seems. Each devotional reading on Jesus actually starts with a lyric and then offers a mediation. Sometimes these insights into the Christ would stand well on their own without the poetry/song lyrics, and, of course, the poems/lyrics stand on their own. Sometimes he draws on his own rendering (and sometimes has a “lyric note” as an afterward.)

Card never wants to draw attention to his own serious education or his talent or aesthetic style. This book isn’t a proud retrospective of all the songs he’s written about Jesus (although there is a fabulous and fabulously-useful index in the back highlighting more than a hundred of his Biblically-influenced songs from his dozens of albums.)

The Nazarene is a poetical vision of who Jesus is shared by a singer-songwriter and serious follower of the Way. Having met Mike more than once, I can assure you that he’s the real deal. Having read this book quickly, I can say I will pick it up again, perhaps even during Lent, using it to guide me more deeply into a love of the Lord and a more serious dedication to follow the Master.

Touch the Earth: Poems on the Way Drew Jackson (IVP) $18.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40

One of the great joys of this past season was experiencing the privilege of being at an event at Western Seminary (in Holland, MI) sponsored by the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination. Pastor and poet Drew Jackson was a speaker there and it was a great honor to meet him and hang out just a bit. His urban pastoral sensibility was powerful and his poetic style remarkable — accessible, but not simplistic, Bible-based, but not didactic. Touch the Earth is so aesthetically rich it carries a forward by the great Irish wordsmith and activist, Padgraig O’Tuama.

Touch the Earth is brand new and picks up where his 2021 release, God Speaks Through Wombs leaves off. That collection, subtitled “Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming” (and with a vivid foreword by popular musician Jon Batiste)  draws its allusive, poetic insight from Luke 1 through 8. Touch the Earth also reflects on Luke, through poetry, starting with Luke chapter 9. And, whoa, is it captivating: the first poem is about his father’s good actions caring for Drew’s mother as she was dying of cancer. I have pondered the next one, on Luke 9: 3-4 (“Take Nothing”) more than I’d expect. Ruth Haley Barton, who says it has touched something deep in her, invites us to “partake Drew’s newest collection of poems with an open heart and an open Bible.” Right.

Our friend Cole Arthur Riley says of it:

Poem after poem, Drew Jackson approaches questions of community and trust and meets them to with the bore of certainty but a reverence for the unspoken, for mystery and suspense.

Luke: Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws Adam Hamilton (Abingdon) $19.99           OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99

I suppose if you follow religious publishing at all, or read BookNotes very carefully, you know who Adam Hamilton is. The pastor of one of the largest United Methodist churches in the country and a very popular Bible teacher, his DVDs are standards, these days, used by many. He is affirmed on book jackets and given accolades by evangelical moderates and those in more progressive movements; from Jim Wallis to Philip Yancey to Brian McLaren, he is honored as a balanced and thoughtful voice teaching the church good stuff about the Scriptures. He has done several on the birth of Christ, several on His life, a few on the cross and Holy Week. He has done short ones on Bible characters, too — Moses, Peter, etc. This one is down-to-Earth and full of insight; Susan Hyman (NT prof at Candler) says it is “Readable and relevant, this book will both delight its readers and discomfort them, just as the Gospel does.” Yup.

This may be the first time Hamilton has tackled a whole book of the Bible and I am both appreciative and a bit frustrated. It isn’t a commentary as such and he obviously can’t cover the whole book in a six short DVD sessions. The hardback book (which has six key chapters, and an afterword and such) is handsome and solid and very readable, as you’d expect from the popular mega-church communicator. Even with the forward and footnotes it’s only about 150 pages.

As anyone who cares about the integrity of the preaching with close attention to the Biblical text would affirm, it is good that he sees how Luke brings in stories of justice and poverty, economics and politics, healing (he was a doctor, they say) and hope. The subtitle says much, illustrating his clever and entertaining approach and the seriousness with which he takes what the Bible actually says.

Of course it doesn’t say all that needs saying, but for a great introduction to Jesus as seen through the eyes of Luke, this new Adam Hamilton resource is great. We have the hardback books, the DVDs, of course, and the adult leaders guide. Maybe you could use it for a small group or adult education class at your church.

Finding Messiah: A Journey into the Jewishness of the Gospel Jennifer M. Rosner (IVP) $17.00      OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60

There are lots of books (thank goodness) that explore the Jewishness of Jesus. From Messianic followers of Jesus to Jesus scholars who remain Jewish (like Amy-Jill Levine, say) to hefty historians like N.T. Wright, there is much to learn.

This recent book captured my attention when I saw the foreword by Richard Mouw, an author I admire greatly. In his opening remarks (where he ably tells what is good about the book) he admits that it has forced him to reconsider, yet again, some of his own deeply held assumptions about the relationship between Christians and Jews and, more, between the gospel of Jesus and the role of Judaism. In other words, this isn’t just a lovely little guide to some of the distinctly Jewish ways of Jesus or how He fulfilled certain prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s very engaging but meaty.

As you may know there are serious questions among and even controversies between Christians about all this. (Not to even mention a horrendous background of persecution visited on Jewish people by so-called Christians.)

This book is both a dive into that contentious space and a lovely overview for those wanting refreshed in hearing the story of a Messianic Jews. As Brian Zahnd puts it, while saying how much he enjoyed Jennifer Rosner’s book, “her attempt to bridge the ancient rift between Jewish identity and Christian faith is timely and important.”

“This is a book I didn’t know I was waiting for.”

“This is a book I didn’t know I was waiting for,” says Marty Solomon (president of Impact Campus Ministry.) “Look no further,” says Gerald McDermott – “This is the most enjoyable introduction to Jesus and Judaism you will ever find.” It is an account of some of the scholarly debates but it not only helps those conversations come alive, but it offers a bit more light and not just heat. I’m impressed, even if I (like Mouw) still have questions to ponder and issues to work through. Finding Messiah is a wonderful book, written by a woman who is now teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

As Mouw writes,

So, yes. Jen Rosner has forced me to face issues that I have long been willing to ignore, and I will now continue to face. I am confident that her wonderful book will motivate others to make the journey, also. Jen still has questions that she is pursuing, so it has to be a continuing journey for all of us. For now, though, I can express deep gratitude that she has prodded me to take some new steps along the path.

Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus Nancy Guthrie (Crossway) $16.99                OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59

I have often said that for a straight-arrow, solidly evangelical, straight-forward teacher of the Bible, Nancy Guthrie is hard to beat. She is one of the most reliable and interesting writers in that good tradition and while she doesn’t take in edgy postmodern ideas or add zippy applications from contemporary culture, she is lively enough, interesting, earnest, and (as one reviewer put it about this new one) “can speak directly to the realities of your life, giving you a fresh glimpse of all that can be yours in Jesus Christ.”

In other words, get ready to see yourself as a scoundrel and, by God’s grace, increasingly, as a saint.

Yep, as Rosaria Butterfield writes, this book is “convicting and comforting at once.” God’s family is, as Rosaria puts it, “rough around the edges and held together by grace and blood and faith and the King of kings and Lord of lords…”

The story of Jesus in the Gospels includes all kinds of interesting people. (Think back to the subtitle of the Adam Hamilton study of Luke!)  As the back cover of this new Nancy Guthrie volume puts it, there are “some who claimed to be saints but proved to be scoundrels, as well as scoundrels who were transformed into saints.” If you were paying attention during Advent and Christmas, you got some of that, I’m sure. Even in our Christmas story there are some rough characters and some wild goings-on, and always the possibility of surprise reversals.

With fine writing and deep doctrinal knowledge and clear-headed faith she offers a fresh look at what shaped and maybe what motivated the likes of John the Baptist, Peter, the Pharisees, Zacchaeus, Judas, Caiaphas, Barabbas, Stephen and Paul.

Granted, there are bunches of books that have done “character studies” and, yet, we still are often moved by finding ourselves in their complicated stories. These kinds of books often work, and in her hands it is for reasons other than what we might call moralism. What is especially strong, here, in this telling of these tales, is how she helps us see so clearly how each reveals something of the goodness of God and the grace of Jesus towards all. God, finally, is the point of these very human stories. God, revealed in the person of Jesus the Christ.

Damon Garcia (Broadleaf Books) $18.99                 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19

I have been to protests where our nonviolent leadership was ignored and ugliness arose. (I have been to some where, despite our nonviolence, police ugliness arouse, too – whew.) I get how things can go haywire in such turbulent, contentious contexts. But I am not a fan of riots and there is no justification for destruction in the name of peaceful protest. Even though I liked the controversial 1971 Sly Stone album There’s a Riot Goin’ On, I’m taken aback by the title of this book.

Here, in this boldly provocative and passionately frank book, we are invited to realize that Jesus was a God who invited people to resist oppression, to take a stand against injustice, to rise up, and, well… be disruptive. One only need to think of Dorothy Day or MLK or the Berrigan brothers to recall how many great saints who knew their BIbles well understood something of this call to outcry.

You can read for yourself how this fresh public theology is informed by liberation themes and de-colonial theory. We are now years away from Occupy Wall Street, but this live on-the-streets storytelling in The God Who Riots and Garcia’s passion abasing structural injustice that hurts God’s little ones brings to mind that resistance work. From that socio-political angle, he takes up a fresh reading of the gospels.

Garcia knows the Bible and respects the Scriptures trajectory, even if less interested in this book about systematic details. This is a big look at God from the margins, insisting that following Jesus is costly. As one activist theologian put it, “our work today is to count the cost of what it really means to follow a Brown Palestinian Jew.” Are we now in Babylon? Do we need a whole new way to think about our relationship with the Empires of the age? It’s a live question.

Another similar book, while we are on this testy theme of deconstructing the safe and domesticated Jesus, which also does this with what some will think is an overcorrection, is Not Your White Jesus: Following a Radical, Refugee Messiah written by Sheri Faye Rosendahl (WJK) $18.00 – OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40. She bluntly states that Jesus is not American, does not want to “make America great again.” You get the vibe. She is unflinching in wanting to be true to the authentic Jesus and his subversive teachings, contrary to the gods of consumerism and nationalism and privelege. Listen to this, about Not Your White Jesus:

Be moved by the passionate, heartfelt reflections of a brutally honest, refreshingly real woman who is totally devoted to following Jesus into the hard places and among those often overlooked by the church. Yes, she’s forthright and candid. Yes, she says things that will likely rub you up the wrong way. She’s just trying to be true to Jesus – the radical, brown-skinned, refugee Jesus.”  –Michael Frost, author of Keep Christianity Weird, and Surprise the World!

Daman Garcia, in The God Who Riots, may also not have all the answers, but it seems obvious that, at least, “the Jesus who flipped tables in the temple led an empire-destabilizing movement for liberation.” This isn’t exactly a consistent study of the life and teachings of Jesus but somewhat of a story of a guy who read the footnotes, so to speak, learned to be inclusive and gracious to outsiders who were shunned in his pious and conventionally evangelical upbringing and needed to depart that tradition in order to embrace a progressive, radical faith and community. Agree or not, this story raises righteous questions for anyone paying attention to the themes of the Bible, the nature of Jesus, the teachings of the Master, or the anti-imperial, counter-cultural lifestyle of the early church. Whew.



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No, COVID is not fully over. Since few are reporting their illnesses anymore, it is tricky to know the reality but the best measurement is to check the water tables to see the amount of virus in the eco-system. It’s still bad, and worsening (again.) With flu and new stuff spreading, many hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s important to be particularly aware of how risks we take might effect the public good. It is complicated for us, so we are still closed for in-store browsing due to our commitment to public health (and the safety of our family, staff, and customers.) The vaccination rate here in York County is sadly lower than average. Our store is a bit cramped without top-notch ventilation so we are trying to be wise. Thanks for understanding.

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