The best little Board Book on Holy Week and some other great resources for reflecting on the Passion of Jesus. ON SALE at 20% off

As is our usual practice, we show the regular retail price of the items. If you order using our secure order form page (click on the “order” link at the end of this column) we will write back right away and acknowledge the order. We’ll put your credit card receipt in the package, of course, showing the 20% off discount and shipping charges. Or an invoice if you’d rather have us bill you so you can pay be check later. Whatever works for you.

We invite you to tell us if you’d like the slowest, cheapest “media mail” rate (that, for a small order, is something like $2.75) or the quicker Priority Mail (which is still cheaper, and yet often quicker, than UPS.) For a smallish order of a few books that is often $6.95. Since some of these may be needed within a week, you may want to opt for Priority Mail, but we’ll do whatever you request.

Holy Week: An Emotions Primer Danielle Hitchen art by Jessica Blanchard (Harvest House) $12.99 I have rarely been so glad, and frankly surprised, by a board book; this new one called Holy Week is part of a several book series called “Baby Believer.” Maybe that sounds a little corny to your liturgical ears, but these are wonderful books for infants (and maybe up to 4 or 5 years old or so.) Each one has Bible episode or verse, linked to something that is also being taught. For instance, Let There Be Light has the subtitle An Opposites Primer.  First Bible Basics is called A Counting Primer; we love the one called From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer. There is even one called Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer.

The one we are featuring now, of course, is the one designed to teach the episodes of Holy Week, and it does so brilliantly. Each chunky page tells of something that happened and lists and emotion.  You’ve got to see it in it’s full color glory with excellent age-appropriate illustration, but here’s what it shows:

  • Palm Sunday – excited
  • Jesus cleansing the temple – angry
  • Jesus washing the feet of the disciples – loved
  • Last Supper – thankful
  • Jesus praying in the garden – overwhelmed
  • Pilate – frustrated
  • Soldiers who crucified Jesus – scared
  • When Jesus died – sad
  • When the women go to the tomb – surprised
  • When Jesus appeared to the disciples – joyful

We have shown this to several customers in the shop and everyone is very impressed; there is nothing cheesy or simplistic about this, and it doesn’t say to much, allowing the child to ponder the Bible text and the art and the emotion. Gladly, Jesus is not portrayed as as European white guy, either, a touch we appreciate.

Danielle Hitchens and Jessica Blanchard have started what they call Catechesis Books. The artist, by the way, is a graduate of James Madison University and also studied at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Goodbye to Goodbyes: A True Story About Jesus, Lazarus, and an Empty Tomb Lauren Chandler, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $14.99 We have highlighted each of the books in this great series, too, and we rejoice that there is a new one, perfect as an Easter gift for young ones ages up to middle elementary ages. Goodbye to Goodbyes is part of a series called “Tales That Tell the Truth” and we love them all. I hope you recall A Christmas Promise or The One O’Clock Miracle or The Storm That Stopped. The recent The Friend Who Forgives is about grace, based on a parable from Jesus. We loved God’s Very Good Idea which shows God’s plan for ethnic and other kinds of diversity in creation, and how God’s plan of redemption includes restoring multi-ethnic reconciliation, never wavering from his “very good” plan. It’s a delight that share the whole gospel — what Lisa Sharon Harper on her adult book calls The Very Good Gospel. 

Echeveri did a Good Friday-themed one in this “Tales That Tell the Truth” series called The Garden, The Curtain and the Cross. It’s very good and would make a great Easter gift.

The new one is also about death and resurrection and it interestingly gets at that by starting with the story of Lazarus, and what it means to lose friends. It is a great tool to help explain sickness and death to children. In a theologically robust way it is reminding us that in the resurrection of Jesus, we don’t have to say ultimate goodbyes any more. As Chandler has Jesus saying, “There is a day coming when we will say goodbye to saying goodbyes forever. Do you believe that?” I suspect she used this Biblical story in her own family teaching her children about the frightening news that her husband had a brain tumor. I am glad for this good, good resource.

As it says on the back cover, “This is happy, and sad, and (in the end) very happy story of what happened when Jesus visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and changed everything.” Kudos to the whimsical illustrations, the portrayal of people from many ethnicities, energetic illustration that captures the spicy flavor of Middle Eastern culture, and the glimpse to contemporary times.

 

The Chronicles of Narnia  C.S. Lewis (Harper) I suppose I don’t have to explain the remarkable stories here, their wonder and joy and sadness and adventure and triumph. Beth and I had the opportunity to sell Lewis books at a Lewis conference in an Episcopal church near Philly a few weeks back and we were enchanted again by being around people who knew so much about Lewis (and the other Inklings) and seeing rekindled enthusiasms for these good stories. It is terribly simplistic, but maybe it would be helpful to be reminded of some of the themes in the Narnia books; here is what Wikipedia says, at least:

The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after corruption.
The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” the spiritual life (specially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement.

There are a few different covers and boxed sets available. It’s a little complicated.

We favor the ones that show the original artwork by Pauline Baynes, but that have been colorized with soft pastel color. The 1950s original illustrations were black and white sketches, and the editions that have those are on cheaper paper and not nearly as nice. The colorized paperback editions, however, have a heavier stock glossier paper and are bound nicely.

The cheaper paperback editions have nice covers by Chris Van Allsberg but the Pauline Barnes inside art is black and white; they sell for $8.99 each or $55.93 for a boxed set.

The nicer paperbacks with better paper and colorized Pauline Baynes art sell for $9.99 or $8.99 each (depending which book) or $64.99 for a boxed set.

The hardbacks sell for $17.99 each (or $120.00 for a boxed set.) The cover art is by 2-time Caldecott medalist David Wiesner and interior illustrations are Pauline Baynes originals.

As you may note from the list above, the order of the books, nowadays, as per the wishes of the muckety-mucks at Harper, starts with The Magician’s Nephew, now labeled as Book One. As most older readers know, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe remains the one that should be read first. It makes a great Easter basket present!

Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) $16.99  You may recall my review of this at the start of Lent… it isn’t written as a daily Lenten devotional, so I was surprised how many people ordered it from us a month ago. I wanted to mention it again since its six chapters would make a great reading plan for Holy Week. It’s just 141 pages and a very good read!

Amy-Jill is a thoughtful and energetic New Testament scholar who also teaches Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. (Professor Levine is herself not a Christian, by the way, but is a practicing Jew.) Her vivid insights about first century Judaism has made her an important voice in Jesus studies (in fact, she has an award-winning book called The Misunderstood Jew about the Jewishness of Jesus and another on Jesus’s parables called Short Stories Jesus Told.)

“In every good story,” she says, “there is history and there is risk.”

And that’s a good place to start a re-telling of the passion of Jesus, no? Entering the Passion… offers good scholarship, a bit of cultural and religious and political context, and a narrative that pushes us to wonder what all this matters for today. For those of us who do want to follow Jesus, who see ourselves as part of his Body, the church, this will be a blessing and a challenge.  What does it mean to take risks to fulfill our calling, to be a loving servant of others? There are deeply spiritual and frankly ethical questions that Levine unearths from these classic gospel texts.

Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as Record in Mark Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan) $14.99  Oh my, this is one of the best Lenten books we know, a careful and moving reflection on Mark’s telling of the passion week story.  This offers 41 readings for the season but you could obviously just read the last few weeks as it moves towards Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

This is a hand-sized, compact hardcover and Wangerin is a great storyteller and accomplished wordsmith. Highly recommended.

 

The Undoing of Death Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $24.00  I have described this in better detail other years — almost every year since I was blown away by it in 2003, I believe. If you enjoyed her Advent sermons you will appreciate these as well. These are not Lenten sermons generally, but many year’s worth of Holy Week messages — Palm Sunday sermons, Maundy Thursday reflections, Good Friday words, good, good stuff on Holy Saturday, Easter sermons. This is mature, eloquent, moving, inspiring, collection of real sermons preached by this legendary Episcopal priest. For some chapters there are some art pieces shown on which she helpfully comments. I commend this book to you with all my heart.

Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $18.00  Last year, Reverend Rutledge preached seven sermons in a three hour Good Friday sermon. She has published several such sermons in The Undoing of Death and again in the nice little paperback, The Seven Last Words from the Cross but three are fresh and new and powerful and they cohere well. The book is a compact, thin hardback and is just lovely, a treasure to have and to hold and to share. I hate to sound pushy, but you will benefit from this, and it is a great little volume. Yes!

 


The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ
Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00  I don’t need to explain this award winning book that (with indexes) weighs in at 665 pages. It is, doubtlessly, one of the major theological books of our time and, by some accounts, one of a handful of must-read books on the cross. It won the Academy of Parish Clergy Reference Book of the Year when it first came out, and the next year it was awarded the Christianity Today Book of the Year. We named it a Hearts & Minds Best Book the year it came out, adding our little voice to the choir of accolades. Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals alike have raved about it, using words like “extraordinary” and “monumental” and “supremely illuminating.”

The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion  N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $18.99 You know we are fans of Tom Wright and we appreciate his careful and lively exegesis framed by a big Kingdom vision. This is Bible exploration for the sake of the churches mission, which itself is for the sake of the world — thanks be to God! As I explained when this came out in hardcover a year or so ago, we might describe this as a study of the cross in light of Wright’s essential book Surprised by Hope.  That is, if God’s final agenda is not to whisk us away to some heavenly place beyond the clouds but is, in promissory fashion, restoring the good but fallen world into a (re)new(ed) creation then — with that big restoration/creation-regained project in mind –what is the point of the cross? Wright her looks through the lens of new creation and cosmic restoration at every key passage where the apostle Paul writes about the cross. What is going on in these passages? How might we more fully understand Paul’s insistence that Jesus puts to death, Death? Is it proper to refer to Good Friday as the start of the revolution?  I dare you to read this book and not feel your mind stimulated, your heart inspired, and your feet and hands ready to get back to work on Monday morning. 

The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology Richard Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney, with an afterword by Willie James Jennings (Eerdmans) $19.99 In the last BookNotes blog newsletter I highlighted a fabulous, readable, conversational rumination on evangelical theology called Restless Faith by Richard J. Mouw. I noted how widely read and conversant he is in many faith traditions, how he is generous in taking seriously the proposals and insights of those outside of his own Reformed camp, and is a good conversation partner, learning and growing from others as he seeks theological (and social) common ground. I might have said that he is restless not in an itchy or cynical way, but in a generous sort of open way, always eager to reform, to mature, to give an account for stuff we learn as we live in God’s world.

And so, this little volume is a perfect example of that. It is a bit heady at times, but mostly is a moving bit of theological reflection on how the suffering of others helps us more fully understand God, the nature of Christ, and the work of the cross. He and Sweeney (a professor  of the history of Christian thought and chair of the church history department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) here point us towards “divine empathy” where the incarnate Christ suffers with his fellow humans.

They write:

We began to think about writing this book after presenting papers together at a conference held at Tokyo Christian University…We joined with eight other scholars — from Japan, Korean, Britain, Australia, and the United States — to explore what we could learn from one another about pain and suffering, victory and hope, as they relate to the significance of Jesus Christ in our globalizing and pluralistic world. We wanted to play from our strengths and work with familiar resources, so we turned our our respective theological traditions for guidance toward amore global and compassionate Christology.

They continue noting that Asian Christians seemed to have a long standing tradition of theology that takes seriously the suffering of the Lord, even in novels. (Think of the work of Japanese writer Shusaku Endo.)

They realize, though, that in North America, there have been those that have given voice to these themes. They look at the Lutheran and Reformed traditions — including Lutheran Franz Pieper as well as John Williamson Nevin of (central Pennsylvania, German-Reformed, Mercersburg fame!  And they look at the black church, especially, which has, as a church of enslaved and oppressed persons, had to do their theology in light of the pain and struggle of the people. Their articulation of victory and hope is deeply connected to wounds and trauma.

So here, a white Reformed and a white Lutheran scholar look to the likes of Sojourner Truth and other theologies of enslaved persons.  After these reflections on incarnation and suffering and Christ’s empathy as a corrective to others sorts of images of Christ’s work, there is the chapter called “The Challenge of Application: Christus Dolor in the American South.” It is important reading here in the sad year of our Lord 2019 when (as we learned this week) iconic civil rights sites like the Highlander Center are defaced with white supremacy symbols and burned to the ground. There is a remarkable essay at the end of The Suffering and Victorious Christ by brilliant black scholar Willie James Jennings called “Christus Victor and Christus Dolor: An Afterword.” Mouw, Sweeney and Jennings? Wow. This may not be everybody’s sort of Holy Week reading, but for some of our customers, this book is a must.

The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK) $15.00 This little book, wonderfully printed on heavy paper and full color reproduction, at such a nice price, is, I’ve often said, the best bargain of any book published in recent years. What a great resource this is — so nicely done (if, granted, a bit small.) Okay, so you missed the wonderful opportunity to use this for the last 30 days. You can use it this next week or so, and I am sure you’ll draw on it over and over. We sold a lot of this one last year, and some have re-ordered. Some who loved the Advent one got the Lent on (a “no-brainer” somebody said.) We’re happy to remind you of it again. Get it now, on sale.

 

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13 recent books we love — new Hearts & Minds recommendations at 20% off.

Here are some great new books that we highly recommend, each for their own reason. Naturally, we have lots of other new books — just send us an inquiry by clicking on the INQUIRY button at the bottom to ask if you want to know if we have whatever your looking for. As a full-service bookstore, we can’t begin to list all our inventory. but we love making time to chat with our on-line friends.

These, though, are some we’re fond of, and think they are the sorts of things many of our readers will be eager to know about. If you are as glad about these as we think you’ll be, use the ORDER FORM link below. Easy. We’ll deduct a 20% off the regular retail price I(which we show) and write back to personally acknowledge everything.

Thanks for your support.

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson edited by Timothy Larson & Keith Johnson (IVP Academic) $28.00 Oh my, what a marvelous book, another in the extraordinary collections that are published by IVP from the annual Wheaton College theology conference. Last year the event was a discussion about and with novelists and essayist Marilynne Robinson and it brought together some of our finest thinkers about faith and literature and culture and church and included a response by the notable author herself. (There are contributions here by Rowan Williams and Joel Sheesley and Lauren Winner and Timothy George and others.) This book is the next best thing to being there at the event, and we are so, so happy to get to announce it here. I trust you get the allusion in the title to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Robinson’s second, Gilead. 

Here is a bit more from the publisher about this rich, weighty volume. I assure you there is nothing like it in print. “Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most eminent public intellectuals in America today. In addition to literary elegance, her trilogy of novels ( GileadHome, and Lila) and her collections of essays offer probing meditations on the Christian faith. Many of these reflections are grounded in her belief that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin still deserves a hearing in the twenty-first century. This volume, based on the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, brings together the thoughts of leading theologians, historians, literary scholars, and church leaders who engaged in theological dialogue with Robinson’s published work–and with the author herself.”

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction (Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson)
1. The Theological World of the Reverend John Ames (Timothy Larsen)
2. Heart Conditions: Gilead and Augustinian Theology (Han-luen Kantzer Komline)
3. Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin (Timothy George)
4. The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson (Keith L. Johnson)
5. Thinking About Preaching with Marilynne Robinson (Lauren F. Winner)
6. Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience (Patricia Andujo)
7. Space/Time/Doctrine: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels (Tiffany Eberle Kriner)
8. Heaven and Earth: Reading Gilead Through the Landscape of the Fox River (Joel Sheesley)
9. Beyond Goodness: Gilead and the Discovery of the Connections of Grace (Rowan Williams)
10. The Protestant Conscience (Marilynne Robinson)
11. A Conversation Between Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams (Moderated by Vincent Bacote and Christina Bieber Lake)
12. An Interview with Marilynne Robinson (Philip Ryken)

Marilynne Robinson’s work is saturated in theology–not only in that it is pervaded by engagement with Christian belief in general but in that it is shaped by years of deep engagement with the texts of the Protestant (especially Calvinist) tradition. We have waited a long time for a collection like this. It is certain to be a rich source of interest and delight.”–Jeremy Begbie,  Distinguished Professor of Theology, Duke University

“Marilynne Robinson is perhaps the most vital of living American novelists. This collection contains essay after thoughtful essay exploring various facets of her complex and beautiful body of work. After reading them you feel that you have watched the assembling of a delightful portrait of this most theologically resonant of our writers.”–Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities, honors program, Baylor University

“The religious themes and insights in Marilynne Robinson’s novels and essays–especially her striking fondness for Calvin–have won her a devoted Christian following. Until now, however, there has been little explicit engagement with her work by theologians. In this volume, an impressive range of thinkers opens up a conversation with the novelist about the Christian life, the Reformed tradition, and the American experience.”–David Heim, executive editor, Christian Century

Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation Adele & Doug Calhoun and Clare & Scott Loughrige (IVP/formatio) $24.00 Holy smokes, just when you thought there were enough books on the enneagram and faith formation (well, unless your a 5, and then you can’t get enough) here comes a workbook-sized manual by remarkable folks gifted in creating great resources. (Adele Calhoun did the incredibly useful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook and the powerful, poetic Invitations to God.) Clare and Scott are cofounders of a church where they’ve served for twenty-six years and they are, like the Calhoun’s, are certified Enneagram instructors.  In large print on the back it says “You are more than your type.” Hear, hear.

This book is over 230 pages and offers what they claim is new insight on the Enneagram and the Harmon Triads and it has an appendix called “Soul Resources.” This is for those who have learned a bit about the Enneagram and wonder “What’s next?”

 

Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living Thomas Lynch (WJK) $18.00 Those who have followed our work for a long time might recall the times, years ago, when I insisted that Lynch was our favorite new writer. His award-winning book The Undertaking: Notes from the Dismal Trade and it’s follow up Bodies at Motion and at Rest helped me when my dad was killed and I was unable to read about grief. But these literary, passionate, deeply moral reflections on being an undertaker blew me away and remain all time favs. His great reflection on his travels to Ireland — Booking Passage and the book he wrote with theologian Thomas Long (The Good Funeral) are stellar. We stock his poetry, too. Because of his groundbreaking work doing solid studies of the role of the “dismal trade” and his splendid writing style, Lynch remains the gold standard in this genre, but lately I’ve read a number of other such books. I loved the spunky Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Tales from the Crematorium and, last year, Caleb Wilde’s Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life. But a new collection from Mr. Lynch is nothing short of a publishing event.

This includes a variety of different kinds of pieces. Heidi Haverkamp calls it a “wistful but vivid collage of memoir, poems (his own and others), stories, and even a short play.” She continues, “He knits these myriad pieces together with candor, humor, and some grief, conjuring the mystery that is human living and dying…”

Lynch is serious but often funny. As Tom Long notes, he has “the discerning eye of the poet and essayist, the wisdom and gravitas of a funeral director, and, most of all, the empathetic imagination to be a shrew observer of the people, living and dead, with him he has shared this planet.”

This is one of those books that I am sure is so full of whimsy and care and goodness that I hardly dare open it. I have to wait for the right moment as reading this will be one of the great pleasures of this season. I without a doubt commend it to you.  Kudos to WJK for producing a lovely, handsome, paperback volume.

Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy Belinda Bauman (IVP) $23.00 Belinda Bauman is one of our favorite people, even though we’ve only met a few times. You know those rare folks who are confident and honest, who show such interest in you that you realize they have a gift — caring, thoughtful, brave, for real. After a few moments in her presence I was encouraged and blessed and glad. She and her husband, Stephen, have lived all over the world, doing relief and development work and caring for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus.  As Steven tells it, Belinda was often the energizing force, the one who most readily heard God’s call to risk and serve. They are adventurous people who do excellent work and I’d read anything either of them wrote.

This brand new book is on the surface about brave women who are doing extraordinary work, leading the way, doing justice, bringing goodness and beauty and peace to the world. If these stories were all that were in Brave Souls the book would be a winner and you would love reading it. But there is more going on — finally, it is about empathy. She uses cutting edge neuroscience and Biblical parables and insights gleaned from the women she writes about to offer insights about how to be more empathetic. By nurturing this kind of deep care for others, this solidarity with the human condition, we can be transformed — practicing empathy can be a spiritual discipline which will create in us a character of virtue and inspire us to bravery.

Listen to Kathy Khang, who knows a thing or two about caring well and speaking up bravely. (She wrote a book about it, in fact, called Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up.) She says:

Belinda Bauman gives us a gift — inviting us away from merely hearing someone to embracing empathy and allowing another person’s story to move us into action. The journey isn’t pretty or easy, but Bauman’s belief in change left me more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.

Do you wish to counter apathy with empathy? Do you need to move beyond “compassion fatigue” and take up world-changing actions? By listening well to others, honoring their own stories (even, maybe especially, among those we distrust and disagree with) we can be the peacemakers God calls us to be. This is a book of great joy and great energy.

The cover is a bit busy, but if you look carefully you’ll see some thumb and fingerprints. These show up in the book. You’ll love it.

Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream Brian Fikkert & Kelly Kapic (Moody Publishers) $15.99  Why don’t you order a few of these from us right away — it’s that important, and I’ll be mentioning it often this year. I’m sure I will name it as one of the Best Books of 2019. Let me explain.

Some of our customers (from a variety of religious traditions and from various social sectors) have greatly appreciated the important volume by Fikkert and his colleagues at the Chalmers Center at Covenant College called When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… There are a few spin off items (one for those going on short term mission trips and a good one called Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.) These compassionate and savvy books offer a bigger picture than just critiquing toxic charity or affirming free market capitalism as the answer to poverty and offers proposals for faithful, lasting, initiatives.

Yet, Fikket worried that there needed to be a better foundation so that readers and those wanting to do good don’t misunderstand God’s call to wholistic development or read that call through the lens of a worldly sort of materialism. There are those who would use, it seems to me, When Helping Hurts to swipe at those doing their best to serve with the poor (locally and abroad) and there are those who have a presuppositional loyalty to free market capitalism, and read everything through that debatable ideology. Fikket, and his theological co-writer here, are Reformed and doctrinally conventional. Their worldview is such that they want to discern the spirit of the age and understand the times in ways that are faithful. We might say they offer a prophetic imagination.

And so, they have given us this big, fascinating, deeply spiritual, wonderfully inspiring call to reject the American dream of mere economic growth and materialism. While they may reject some big plans of the welfare state, they are no populists or nationalists. They are shaped by a Kingdom imagination and the Biblical story of God’s redemptive work through Christ. This is practical public theology that is readable and helpful.

Becoming Whole offers fabulous social science research and solid Biblical work; it exposes misunderstandings about the true sources of human brokenness and poverty and they invite us to a multi-dimensional and humane approach to true flourishing. As it says on the back, they “fundamentally reframe success and the path forward.”

Of course this is for anyone doing caring ministries, anti-poverty work, economic development, or service for the common good. But I believe it is for any of us — those who are broke and wishing for greater financial health and for those who are people of means wondering what makes for a truly fulfilling life.

Why are families and communities increasingly fragment? Why is loneliness skyrocketing? What is mental and even physical health deteriorating? Becoming Whole helps us make sure we aren’t spreading dis-ease and our own brokenness even as we are attempting to make the world a better place. It is a great, important book, nicely designed with two color ink and some nice graphic touches.  Good job, Moody!

Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World Volume 2 Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press) $54.99 This is the brand new, much-anticipated volume in the ongoing Kuyper publishing project releasing hefty tomes in the “Collected Works in Public Theology.” We stock them gladly as it was in many ways Kuyperians — the fancy word those who stand in the line of the early 20th century Dutch neo-Calvinist cultural leader and public intellectual who reminded us of God’s redemption of “every square inch” of culture and society — who inspired us with a world-and-life vision of faith that led to founding our bookstore the way that it is. That God has given good gifts that can be discerned by artists and scientists and wise ones who are attentive to the glories and structures of creation should be evident; that such wisdom leads to human flourishing by honoring God’s built-in intentions for His creation is a matter of life and death. The best books help us open up and disclose the meaning of history and the point of life in each and every aspect of society. Preacher, theologian, reporter, educator, Prime Minister Kuyper (1837-1920) had much to say about so much of this, positing a set of Christian principles from which might emerge a renewed, just culture (unlike the brutal French Revolution of the previous century) and his old words still speak today. Kudos to those translating his many newspaper essays and lectures and books (sometimes for the first time in English) and for putting them in these handsome, enduring volumes.

When a book bears on the back cover compelling endorsements by theologians and leaders like Rich Mouw and Jamie Smith, human rights and inter-faith activists like Matt Kaemingk, jazz players and apologetics profs like Bill Edgar, and Godly, winsome teachers like the legendary Davey Naugle, you should pay attention. I’m just saying.

“Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace is founded on a deep devotion to the notions of God’s sovereignty and our obligation to participate in the divine call to be obedient to the lordship of Jesus Christ in all areas of life. The release of this multi-volume series is timely because many Christians these days — Wesleyans, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and others beyond the boundaries of Reformed/Presbyterian life and thought — are looking for resources for equipping Christians to find alternatives to the various ‘world-flight’ spiritualities that have long afflicted the broader Christian community. This work gives us a much-needed opportunity to absorb Kuyper’s insights about God’s marvelous designs for human cultural life.”
Richard J. Mouw, professor of faith and public life, Fuller Theological Seminary

“God’s redemption is as wide and high and deep as the expanse of his creation. This is the central message of Abraham Kuyper that has been heard anew by a generation of young evangelicals who have a new appreciation for the importance of Christian culture-making. This book is a wonderful way to meet Kuyper face to face and hear from him firsthand. I look forward to pointing friends and students to this wonderful anthology. It’s just what we need.”
James K. A. Smith, The Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College

“Abraham Kuyper navigates with a sure hand on the tiller, taking us through the waters of culture, church and state, calling, and collaboration, with theological wisdom. Kuyper knows of no separation between warm piety and cultural commitment, nor of biblical texts and issues in the contemporary world. This fresh translation of Common Grace is a most welcome addition to the growing body of Kuyper’s oeuvre available in English. No one wrestling with issues of church and society can afford to ignore it.”
William Edgar, professor of apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

“How do we make sense of the contributions of, say, a Steve Jobs to human culture? How do Christians account for the rather immeasurable amount of good achieved by those presumably uncovenanted with God? Common grace is the answer: God’s mercies are over all his works. This first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace hits the sweet spot for Christians seeking answers to questions about the breadth of the gospel, their own roles in public life, and the beneficial contributions of others, especially in science and art. Highly needed and recommended.”
David K. Naugle, Distinguished University Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Dallas Baptist University

“Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace has enriched my own theological approach to cultural engagement for years. The release of these translations into the English-speaking world is sure to have lasting ripple effects throughout the fields of public theology, Christian ethics, and systematic theology. Kuyper’s robust theological portrait of a God whose dynamic, creative, and gracious work pervades the entire world will inflame the imagination and warm the heart.”
Matthew Kaemingk, Associate Dean, Fuller Theological Seminary, Texas

 

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church James E. Beitler III  (IVP Academic) $25.00  Maybe you saw on social media that a week or two ago we sold books at a great C.S. Lewis conference hosted at an Episcopal Church near Philadelphia. With several expert Lewis scholars we had a blast, and a few talked about this seemingly arcane topic that so preoccupied Lewis and his Inklings: rhetoric. In many ways, this is a huge topic — how do we communicate? What makes something compelling? How do we present truth (or what we think is truth) to others? In an age of mass marketing and social media, how do we persuade? Does goodness, beauty and truth go together, and does charm and eloquence and elegance count much in persuading others? What is a Christian view of communication and what might a theologically-aware framework offer as we think about rhetoric? What does that verse (Colossians 4:6) mean about having our speech “seasoned with salt”?  Lewis asked these questions, of course.

Alas, this book came a few days after that fine event and some there would have loved it. It includes a chapter on Lewis and a chapter on Dorothy Sayers!  I assume there are other astute readers of BookNotes who will appreciate just how fabulous this book is.

Seasoned Speech looks at five key Christian public intellectuals and analyzes how they spoke and wrote and bore witness  Using this embodied case study approach we learn about different options to understand the core meaning of the gospel story and various styles and ways to speak about such things. Beitler invites us to ponder how each may or may not be faithful and fruitful. What a project!

Here are the five characters (presented after a fabulously rich introductory chapter) and the chapter title — this should itself inspire some of you to order this right away, eh? I’ll offer an admittedly terse phrase that captures something of Beitler’s summary of their understanding of the gospel and their rhetorical approach to how to get that said:

  • Preparing the Way: C. S. Lewis and the Goodwill of Advent  (“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”)
  • Professing the Creeds: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Energy of Christmastide  (“The Christian faith is he most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination.”)
  • Preaching the Word: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Epiphanic Identification (“The glory of Jesus is hidden in his humility and is perceived only in faith.”)
  • Calling for Repentance: Desmond Tutu and Lenten Constitutive Rhetorics (“We are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence.”)
  • Hosting the Guest: Marilynne Robinson and the Ethos of Eastertide (“Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”)

Read these endorsements to illustrate further the scope and significance of this amazing work.

It is often very hard to see the obvious–that is, something as basic as the eloquence required for the proclamation of the gospel. But Beitler helps us recognize that the simple truth has an unmistakable eloquence, which is why it matters that we take lessons from the classical rhetorical tradition. Readers of this book will discover that the rhetorical task and questions of the truth of what we believe cannot be separated.        —Stanley Hauerwas

This is an enlightening and fascinating exploration of five witnesses to the Christian faith and gospel. Even more, these diverse truth bearers–C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson–function as lenses through which James Beitler III shows how the Word, liturgy, and life weave together rhetorically in faithful witness in differing contexts. Beitler’s treatment is itself a keen example of seasoned speech, an embodied and intensely personal witness tinged with liturgical overtones. The effect of Beitler’s evocative analysis is twofold: to encourage the reader to a self-examination of one’s own Christian self, and to invite the reader to participate in the kind of embodied witness that Christian existence entails.                   —André Resner, professor of homiletics and liturgics, Hood Theological Seminary
In today’s toxic communication climate, the apostle Paul’s admonition that our speech should ‘always be gracious’ (Col 4:6) seems impossibly naive. One factor that fuels our skepticism is that we have no models of what gracious persuasion looks like in practical ways. How can we be both gracious and convicted in our communication? We are indebted to James Beitler for offering us vivid examples of Christian communicators — Lewis, Sayers, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, Robinson — who spoke timely truth marked by creativity, passion, and respect. Even if you are familiar with Beitler’s subjects, his insights cast them in a new and invigorating light.                                                         —Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication, Biola University, author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Belief Richard Rohr (Convergent) $26.00  Okay, I’ll say right away that my announcement here does not do this book justice. As I wrote in my somewhat critical review of Rohr’s previous book, The Divine Dance, I have great appreciation for Father Rohr and his Franciscan sensibilities. His peace and justice activism rooted in a vision where “everything belongs” in the “naked now” means a lot to me. When he cites Merton and the other mystics, I’m truly glad and nicely challenged. I want to like his work; I think I’m we’re often seeking similar vistas but using different words and ways into the experience; as we implied above in announcing the new Kuyper volume on “common grace” I am thrilled by the notion that God upholds all things, inviting us to a sacramental worldview, where we see God’s presence in the mundane and God’s redemptive work all over.

This image of the cosmic Christ — think of Colossians 1 or Ephesians 1, Rohr says, rightly —  is part of our story, and when Rohr starts off citing Chesterton, say, I’m fully on board.

Early in the book, Rohr writes,

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of. Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply. I call that kind of deep and calm seeing “contemplation.”

But then without much of an argument or apology he falls into the heresy of pantheism saying dumb stuff, repeatedly, like “God loves things by becoming them.” He has goofy ways of talking about Jesus, about the Christ, about incarnation, about resurrection. I’m not too locked in (I don’t think) to rigorous, logical language about doctrine, which at it’s best should move to mystery and doxology and service. But it seems like Rohr just throws caution to the wind as if proper formulation doesn’t matter. Or maybe he really thinks his formulations — that Jesus on Easter morning was mostly Light — are right. Gosh, I hope such missteps are just poetic license and hyperbole. His central thesis — that Christ is “another name for everything” — just isn’t theologically adequate or nuanced enough.

(I have to say I’m also a little peeved at his marketing schtick which feels disingenuous — in the last book it was the Trinity that was “forgotten” and which needs to be recovered and now it’s the notion of a big reigning present Christ that has been “forgotten.” Yet, his recovery of these things is not in keeping with what the early church really taught and ignores a thousand years of Protestant thought so his project isn’t so much wanting us to merely recover and remember but to adopt his pantheistic interpretation of the creation and the cosmic Christ. What he seems to not want to say is how many thoughtful church leaders have renounced this gnostic stuff. He could be right, of course, but it isn’t just that we’ve forgotten these old notions; one could argue that they were not forgotten but rejected. I wish he’d just be more honest about his unusual phrases and images and points and be clear how he isn’t heterodox. )

I know many like to differentiate between Jesus and Christ and I get that, but he is sloppy about it all — at least so far in my reading. I find sentences that are annoying because they aren’t clear (followed by a scolding that in this book we have to withhold egoic judgements when things aren’t clear. Man, what editor did he bribe to get away with that free pass?) Most readers aren’t exactly the control freaks he implies we are for wanting a sentence to make sense. I could even live with all the sophomoric Capital Letters if it helped bring clarity and brilliance. But sentences about Infinite Primal Sources and Jesus being a Third Someone and the Logos of John being the Primordial Pattern doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it will for you.

I’m still reading this, and there is beauty and mystery and wholeness and a trajectory here that is more right than wrong, I think. I appreciated Teilhard de Chardin in the ’70s and Matthew Fox in the ’80s and while I don’t get Ken Wilber, I have friends that think he’s great. Fair enough. Brother Rohr draws on the Orthodox tradition, too — deification and such — which isn’t as useful for some of us as he seems to think, nor as self-evidently correct. But for liberal Protestants who haven’t had much of an enchanted, all-of-life-redeemed hope, this might help and fire them up.  And for fundamentalists filled with hell-fire and anxiety, it would be a corrective, although no fundamentalist will be convinced by it since he doesn’t speak their language. My hunch is that those who are inclined to like this sort of thing will love it, and those who are skeptical will remain so. It’s a shame, because there is insight and provocation here that could help. I name it here suggesting you give it a try.

I’m sure some of my conservative friends will think we’re wrong to even carry such a theologically convoluted book. I disagree. There are good lines here to ponder and important notions to consider. It would make a good thing to meditate on but, better, to talk about with others. Rohr would like that, I bet, as different sorts of folk come to the table in open-mindedness to grapple with Big Ideas in this Mootable Treatise. That could be fun, eh? Seriously, check it out.

Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of AND in an Either-Or World Jen Pollock Michel (IVP) $16.00  I’m fascinated that there have been four or five (really good) books on paradox in the last year or so, the best coming from evangelical publishing houses like this one. There is afoot a lovely and healthy longing for mystery and a naming of wonder and even for those who want rigorous thinking and generous orthodoxy, they admit that there is a role for ambiguity. Our human categories simply can’t contain all these either/ors.  We need the world “and.”

Again, this isn’t the first book to suggest that, not even from the conservative theological end of the pew. But it may be the most beautifully written, the wisest, the most interesting. Mystical friends like Marlena Graves (author of the fabulous A Beautiful Disaster, a book that obviously knows something about befriending paradox) says it is “wise and compelling.” Lovely writers like Hannah Anderson (author of All That’s Good) rave. She suggests it leads us to the Divine!

I like Emily Freeman’s blurb which says that Surprised by Paradox,

Highlights our call to faith that invites us to form a sacred, expectant circle around one tiny word — and… This book is a subversive invitation to make peace with the paradoxical way of Jesus.

I hope you know Jen Pollock Michel’s other books and DVDs. We love her profound and engaging teaching with almost memoir-like stories in Teach Us To Want about desire and ambition and her wonderful Keeping Place about home, home-making, a sense of place and hospitality. They tend to be used in woman’s groups but we recommend them highly for one and all.

Jen Michel is the sort of practical, down-to-Earth theologian we need. She draws on exceptional sources — Fleming Rutledge, N.T. Wright, Todd Billings, Alexander Schmemann, Eugene Peterson, Ellen Davis. From a section drawing on Salile Tisdale’s Violation to an extended riff on Chesterton to chapters with titles like “The High Treason of Hallelujah,” this is stuff your going to want to read and discuss.

There are good study and conversation questions after each of the four major parts, Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament.

“A book that celebrates the glorious and (not or) of Christian spirituality. Surprised by Paradox has many ands of its own: it is accessible and smart, relatable and challenging, a page-turner, and theologically profound. With clarity and richness, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to sit before the beautiful mystery of God without resisting, diminishing, or seeking to solve or untangle it, which is to say, she invites us into the depths of worship.” Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

Oversimplifications are dangerous. Especially in theology and public life we need and rely on people who are capable of living into the challenging paradoxes we find in the Gospels. Rich with personal stories and reflections, Michel’s explorations of what it means to live by ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ offer a vision of Christian hospitality without laxity and theological integrity without rigidity. This is a timely, practical, and thought-provoking book.”–Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Word by Word, and Make a List

Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels Richard Mouw (Brazos press) $19.99 Okay, I’ll just say it: Mouw is my favorite writer in the genre of theology — he makes complex stuff really clear and explains why it matters — and is one of the very best (balanced, careful, thoughtful, wise, generous) when it comes to applying classic Reformed theology to the world and its cultures and issues. If he calls himself a Kuyperian, I call myself a Mouw-ist.

That was a long way to go for a joke I heard from somebody else (maybe Gideon Strauss of the Institute for Christian Studies) but it was worth it. We should all be Mouw-ists — generous, thoughtful, gracious, Biblically-attuned, clear about our own faith traditions and yet open to others.

We did an announcement about this last winter before it came out and took a bunch of pre-orders. It made me as happy as anything, knowing this reasonable meditation on core convictions of orthodox Christianity (granted, sung in Reformed and reformational keys) was being read by so many. Thanks to all who ordered it from us then.

Part of this book retells some of Rich’s own “restlessness” with the phrase “evangelical.” He was an early Presbyterian conversation partner with Mennonites (a move that literally was life-changing for me, realizing I could hold the Reformed worldview and the Mennonite pacifist impulses together) and he partnered early on as a Reformed evangelical philosopher with heros of mine like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. Again, his writings from Grand Rapids in the 1970s where he taught at Calvin College with Nicholas Wolterstorff and other socially-engaged and culturally-relevant philosophers, were essential for me. Like man, I was glad for the evangelical truisms of simple faith, the assurance of salvation through faith, a relaxed piety; we “Jesus People” even used the phrase “born again” until the Christian right swiped and fouled it; we’d happily commend a “personal walk with Jesus” even as we were a bit uneasy with how that sometimes played out and what others maybe meant by it. (It’s no wonder that many of those whose faith came alive in the great awakening of the late 20th century ended up studying Catholic monks and embracing contemplative spirituality and liturgical church practice.) Beth and I were both raised in mainline denominational churches and hold membership in conventional mainline congregations, we w’eve been restless with our evangelical movement, even though we are stuck in the middle of that subculture as Christian booksellers. We are restless with progressive, liberal theology and we are restless with conservative evangelicalism. Mouw walked this way before we did, and his report on holding these tensions together from a solid Biblical perspective is sensible and good.

He told more of his own life story in a memoir called Adventures in Evangelical Civility but here he explains what the label “evangelical” means and why it matters and why he continues to use it. In a way Restless Faith is an excellent theological primer for our times.

Mouw not only explains his own restlessness with evangelicalism from the vantage point of his on-going conversations with folks from across the theological spectrum (few are as ecumenically aware as he is) but also — and this is important! — why he still clings to the word, the tradition, the movement. That is, even though he disapproves of how the far right (political, socially, and theologically) have captured and co-opted the broad tradition that was once known for Billy Graham and Carl Henry (and now is know from Jerry Falwell and Donald Trump) he still holds to that theological identity. This interesting book is a much needed reasonable voice and will explain much you should know about basic Christian convictions and robust, sensible discipleship. I very highly recommend it.

In Restless FaithRichard Mouw stakes out a thoughtful defense of evangelicalism as a spiritual and even intellectual tradition. Always compassionate, Mouw’s voice is a vital corrective to the invective that distinguishes some prominent evangelicals. You don’t need to be religious yourself to appreciate his earnest pursuit of truth and meaning in our divisive age.
— Sarah Jones, staff writer for New York magazine

Rich Mouw has contributed much wisdom to Christian faith and life over many decades. This wonderful book continues that gift. With characteristic honesty, humility, and hope, Mouw acknowledges the restlessness of his own evangelical identity but then points a way forward to a generous and faithful expression of that identity. For other restless believers, this book contains needed ingredients: some correction, some coaxing, and plenty of celebration for God’s good gifts.
— Leanne Van Dyk, Columbia Theological Seminary

Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin (Brazos Press) $19.99 This book has been called “timely, relevant, and necessary.” It is a study of gun violence from the point of view of a simple-living, urban activist. Shane — whose Irresistible Revolution is a must-read and whose Jesus for President grows more timely every day — lives in a brutally rough part of Camden NJ and has experience drive bys and gang violence and police shootings (that is, police shooting his black neighbors) more than probably anybody you know. He grew up a Southern Baptist boy and still retains a vibrant and happy style of speaking about Jesus. I suppose he grows restless as Mouw does, but because he shares life with the wounded and hurting and sees the glories and dignities of the poor, his restlessness is more with apathy and carelessness and those who have denied the basic teachings of Jesus.

That is, he takes the Bible pretty literally when it talks about peacemaking.

Swords into plowshares? You know those two verses that insist this is God’s plan, an iconic pointer to the reconciliation and hope God is bringing through Jesus (and his people.)

And so, Shane — who knows how to handle a rifle because he grew up hunting, after all —  is just energetic and crazy enough to find some guys who know something about metal working and they’ve learned to forge guns literally into garden tools.

He is on tour now with his co-author Michael Martin, Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith (and now director of RAWtools Inc.) They literally turn guns to garden tools, instruments of death-dealing into instruments of feeding and life. It is practical application of Bible principles, performance art of Biblical teaching, prophecy enacted, a Christian imagination of creative problem solving shown, not just told. This book is the story behind this tour — how they got fed up with mass shootings and urban crime and a religious culture that makes a fetish out of violence and victory. It explains the problem but more, it shows how they came up with ideas of how to respond.

The stories are heartening and very, very moving. Listen to Brenda Salter McNeil (author of Roadmap to Reconciliation) who explains why this book is so important to her:

As a Black woman, mother, and reconciler who has witnessed countless parents losing their children to gun violence, one of my greatest concerns is to find a way to stop this senseless loss of life. That’s why I highly recommend this timely, relevant, and necessary book!”

And listen to Phil Yancey, one of our most reliable and esteemed evangelical writers today who offers this simple endorsement:

Finally we have a winsome, reasonable approach to an issue that usually generates far more heat than light.

I suppose I don’t need to rehearse the grim facts (although Beating Guns explains this stuff as helpfully as any book I’ve seen; Yancey is right — it is a good read even if includes some hard data.)

  • More Americans have died from guns in the US in the last fifty years than in all the wars in American history.
  • Though the people of the United States total 5 percent of the world’s population, they own almost half the world’s guns.
  • With well over 300 million guns in the US, there are more guns than people. America also has the world’s most gun deaths–including homicide, suicide, and accidental gun deaths–at 105 per day, or about 38,000 per year.

As Shane and Michael say on the back cover, “The world doesn’t have to be this way. Beating Guns shows how we can all be part of the solution.”

I might add that this book is nicely designed, on good stock paper that allows full color pictures and some nice graphics. I’m glad Brazos spent extra to make this book a beautiful witness to this good work. It is a clarion call, aimed at our hearts, our minds, and our actions. There is nothing like it — if you worry about this issue, you’l take heart. If you tend to resist thinking about this or are alarmed by those talking about gun danger, I challenge you to read this. It will help us all.

 

Turn, Turn, Turn: Popular Songs Inspired by the Bible Steve Turner (Worthy Books) $24.99 I have been wanting to tell you about this book for weeks now. Turner is an amazing rock critic and Christian thinker about pop culture. His books should be widely known and shared, especially among younger creative types for whom his work could be a life-line.) Oh how I wish we could sell more of his must-read books Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts and Pop Cultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment which explores very thoughtful Christian principles for all kinds of pop culture pressures and joys, from fashion to video games to advertising to comedy to TV watching. I hope you recall how much I raved about his spectacular book (a must for any Beatles fans) called Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year. 

As distinguished writer of University of Pennsylvania (and hugely significant contributing editor at Rolling Stone), Anthony DeCurtis puts it,

Steve Turner is a splendid writer whose deep and ranging musical knowledge blends inextricably with his understanding of how songs can touch — and save — people’s souls. Those virtues come fully into play in this book, which taught me a great deal and moved me even more.

Holy smokes, did you get that? Anthony Rock and Roll DeCurtis says this book taught him and moved him!

I’m going to indulge my baby boomer rock and roll soul here, myself and celebrate that we have this book that has endorsements on the back by — get this! — these icons: Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, and Nick Cave. Yeah, Nick Cave says this is “an absolute pleasure to read.”

You should know this, though — the cover, designed, I guess, with the “Museum of the Bible” popular culture display in mind, has this obvious ’60s flower power thing going on. That’s fun. But this book includes song reviews of songs from long before the 1960s and include every decade since. Turner wisely explains the Biblical influences of songs by Noel Paul Stookey like 1971s “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” but also “After Forever” by Black Sabbath.  It includes studies of Bowie’s “Word on a Wing” from 1976 and “Adam Raised a Cain” from Springsteen’s ’78 classic album. I love that he has Cockburn’s 1981’s “Dweller by a Dark Stream” and a couple of good 80s Dylan songs.  Obciouasly he has U2’s “40.” You can see what Prince was up to in 1987 (“The Cross”) and  some good ones from the 90s, from Don Henley, Michael Jackson, ALice Cooper and “New Test Leper” by R.E.M. (1996.) Whitney Houston relased “Joy” in 1996 and Turner’s got it. He of course does a Lauryn Hill song from ’98 and Moby’s “Run On” from 1999.

Turn Turn Turn is unfortunately named and the pop-art cover makes one thing it is about the late 60s, but Turner covers songs from pre-World War II and “Can I Get A Witness” from Marvin Gaye, released in 1963.  And he has almost 20 songs from the new millennium, from Sting and Sufjan Stevens to Kanye West and Matisyahu. He looks at the Killer’s 2006 release “Why Do I Keep Counting?” and “Judas” by Lady Gaga. Of course he looks at Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, but he also looks at Katy Perry, Coldplay, Stormzy (from 2017) and Mumford and Sons. Turn, Turn, Turn is a blast.

I’m going to let the publisher explain why this book is so fun:

Did you know:
– 36% of Bob Dylan’s songs published between 1961 and 1968 had biblical references, including his 1964 hit “The Times They Are A-Changin.'”
– The book of Ecclesiastes has been a great inspiration on popular music including the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Birds, the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, and “Desperado,” the 1973 hit by The Eagles, among others.
– Paul Simon once advised a young prospective lyricist to raid the Bible for memorable phrases. “Just steal them,” he said, “That’s what they’re there for.”There’s no question that Scripture has influenced music since the first ever song was penned. In Turn! Turn! Turn! author and music connoisseur, Steve Turner, takes an in-depth look at the lyrics and cultural context of 100 of the greatest songs from the 1930s to today to reveal an often overlooked or ignored strand of influence in popular music–the Bible.Indeed, some of the “greats”–including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bono, Johnny Cash, Sting, and others–have repeatedly returned to the Bible for such sustenance, as well as musical inspiration and a framework with which they can better understand themselves.

“I hope the book prompts, provokes, and intrigues as it reveals this often-hidden history,” writes Steve Turner. You’ll never listen to your favorite song or popular tune the same way again after discovering how the Bible has influenced music.

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction Justin Whitmel Earley (IVP) $18.00  We have lots of books here at the shop about self help sorts of things, from time management resources to books helping you get your house in order. Many are useful, some are more profound than others. None of us want cheap promises or easy answers.

This recent book, The Common Rule by Justin Earley, is nothing short of brilliant, and I hesitate to promote it as a self help book as those sorts of personal growth titles are sometimes dismissed. Unfairly or not, some book buyers tend to assume that such books are cheesy or formulaic. We’ve followed Justin Earley on-line a bit over the last year or so and have friends that know him well. We can vouch that he is a solid, thoughtful guy and this book is very rich and wise.  It is inspired by classic theology and ancient spiritual practices but is savvy about modern lifestyles and what forms habits that help us flourish.

In a way, it is fair to say that this is a practical application follow-up to James K.A. Smith’s award-winning, very widely read You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits. Listen to Andy Crouch, author most recently of Tech Wise Family and Strong and Weak:

“This is a wonderfully practical book. But even more, it is a beautiful one—full of glimpses of the life we were made for and the simple choices that can take us in that direction. The habits described here and the wisdom they embody are the path toward sanity in a frenetic world.” Andy Crouch

Here is how the publisher describes the significance of The Common Rule:

“The modern world is a machine of a thousand invisible habits, forming us into anxious, busy, and depressed people. We yearn for the freedom and peace of the gospel, but remain addicted to our technology, shackled by our screens, and exhausted by our routines. But because our habits are the water we swim in, they are almost invisible to us. What can we do about it? The answer to our contemporary chaos is to practice a rule of life that aligns our habits to our beliefs. The Common Rule offers four daily and four weekly habits, designed to help us create new routines and transform frazzled days into lives of love for God and neighbor. Justin Earley provides concrete, doable practices, such as a daily hour of phoneless presence or a weekly conversation with a friend. These habits are “common” not only because they are ordinary, but also because they can be practiced in community. They have been lived out by people across all walks of life–businesspeople, professionals, parents, students, retirees–who have discovered new hope and purpose. As you embark on these life-giving practices, you will find the freedom and rest for your soul that comes from aligning belief in Jesus with the practices of Jesus.”

Want some help saying yes to life-affirming, good things? Want some help resisting troubling or life-sucking habits? This simple graphic, with four daily and four weekly habits (some affirming, some resistant) can provide a way to think about and measure your growth into better life habits.

Listen to Karen Heetderks Strong, senior director, The Falls Church Anglican, Falls Church, Virginia:

Although I’m a church leader who has known the Lord for decades, I struggle to find space in my days to actually abide in Christ. Instead, I’m tethered to the demands that barrage me through my smart phone. The Common Rule offers a practical way back—not only for individuals but also for churches and small groups.

 

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A Special List of Books on Race — Another “Best Books of 2018” list: Important Books on Race From 2018 – ON SALE 20% OFF

Do you recall the hubbub when the Academy Awards decided not to broadcast some of the very important awards? As if some people didn’t care? Well, that didn’t go so well, since some of those awards, although specialized, were very important. And interesting. You wanted to see them, but you couldn’t. Just to save a little time.

I’m here to solve that problem.

We’ve got a specialized list that other stores may choose not to name, let alone broadcast.

Ladies and gentleman, we present to you our short list of the best books about race, racism, multi-ethnic ministry, and related concerns of 2018.  Sorry it’s running a bit late and long, not unlike the more famous award show.

We had hoped to run this in January and for a variety of reasons that mostly go under the heading of “too darn busy with other essential stuff” — from prepping for Jubilee to needing to list Lent books in March to getting a tooth pulled — we got delayed.

2018 saw a good number of very important, interesting, and useful books on the themes of racial injustice, racism, Biblical justice, Christian reconciliation, urban ministry issues and the like. From moving memoirs to incisive critiques to books offering missional vision and programmatic application, we have seen so many new titles on this topic that we wanted to thank the publishers (and authors) for their commitments to doing this kind of risky publishing. (Risky, because, of course, often these books languish on the shelves. In fact, I’m told many of our fellow-Christian booksellers simply don’t carry many of these sorts.) Many faith-based publishers have done good stuff and just when one is tempted to think that we hardly need more books on this vexing topic, these great reads prove otherwise. We hope you vote with your dollars and purchase some, sending the message to the publishers that we indeed need these kinds of resources.

Here then are some that deserve special acknowledgment, that we recommend, and that we trust you will be glad to know about.  Although a bit late, here are some notable books on race from 2018. I will try to keep my remarks brief, but know that we applaud these authors and believe their work is urgent.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness Austin Channing Brown (Convergent) $25.00 This has been our big selling book on the topic since it came out in the Spring of 2018. We promoted it early on and a number of book clubs, readers, churches, ministries and organizations of used it. Simply put, I’m Still Here is one of the very Best Books of 2018 and we highly recommend this moving memoir of a young Christian woman who has particularly been involved in white middle-class evangelicalism. She tells us what it has been like for her and I am sure many will enjoy, be moved by, be horrified by, and be changed by her brave telling of her own story. Very highly recommended.

All the Colors We Will See Patrice Gopo (W Publishing Groups) $16.99 We’ve highlighted this several times at BookNotes, and we want to celebrate it again as one of the more interesting books you will find from this past year. What a memoir — a black woman raised in Alaska who then moves to the deep South.  There’s all kinds of cross-cultural fiascos, here — some a bit light-hearted, some beautifully and tenderly told, and some horrific. This moves around the issues of race and culture and the questions of how being different effects us. Gopo is a smart, smart woman, a good writer, and she here tells of her marriage and her church and how we think of beauty and brokenness and all kinds of good, good stuff. A lovely blurb on the back from writer Bret Lott reminds us of the high quality of this enjoyable, fine book.

Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody James H. Cone (Orbis Books) $28.00 The year of our Lord 2018 saw the passing of brother James Cone, perhaps one of the most important theologians of the late 20th century.  His previous, recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree continues to sell and transform readers by is powerful prose and insightful, prophetic critique. One need not agree with Cone’s black liberation theology — and there are important books which respond critically to his corpus — to realize how important he was. This book (with a wonderfully poetic foreword by Cornel West — who else?) is the story of his life, his own poetic autobiography that he said he didn’t want to write. But many, many intimate friends and distant readers are glad he did.

It is, as Harold Recinos of Perkins School of Theology says,

A must-read for everyone interested in discerning how to live awake in the gospel while inspiring the voice of the oppressed.

There are remarkable blurbs on the back of this volume — from womanist Emilie M. Townes of Vanderbilt to Willie James Jennings of Yale to Cheryle Townsend Gilkes of Colby College. Cone clearly has left his mark in the academy, in the progressive mainline church, and in the historic black church. He was, doubtlessly, the “genius architect of black liberation theology” and some have called this “his final masterpiece.” It is, of course, unrelenting in its observations and resistance to white injustices and white supremacy. But it is also revealing and vulnerable, an example of how theology matters and what it was like being a liberationist scholar in the too often staid scholarly circles of the mainline academy.

Question: is the title drawn from the gospel song, or maybe the old Sam and Dave hit? Read it to find out!

The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities Adrian Pei (IVP) $17.00 I so, so appreciate the above three books that are memoirs of those sharing their own story, using narrative to help folks understand better the life of a person of color in our time and place. Regardless of one’s own ethnicity and race, these books are captivating and often enjoyable to read, joining the writer on her or his journey, hearing them narrate their own life and times. This important book from 2018 tells some of the author’s story, but it is also research based and loaded with good, helpful, valuable information. As Kathy Khang writes, “The Minority Experience is a helpful addition for organizational leaders to grow and deepen their cultural intelligence to include race and ethnicity.”

Yet, it is more than just a good resource helping leaders understand race, but it helps (most often white) leaders understand the experiences (and, necessarily, the feelings) of minority staff and members.

Here is what it says on the back:

If you’re the only person from your ethnic or cultural background in your organization or team, you probably know what it’s like to be misunderstood or marginalized. Organizational consultant Adrian Pei describes key challenges ethnic minorities face in majority culture organizations. He unpacks how historical forces shape contemporary realities, and what we need to know in order to wrk together fruitfully. If you’re a cultural minority employee or if you’re a majority culture supervisor of people from other backgrounds, discover here how all can flourish.

Isn’t it beautiful to realize such weighty but helpful books are being released by solid, faith-based publishers, knowing that God cares (and the Bible addresses) these very topics? Kudos to IVP, once again, for being the leading publisher consistently offering top-shelf books on this topic.

Listen to what Andy Crouch says about Adrian Pei and The Minority Experience:

Even well-intentioned efforts to build more diverse organizations will fail unless we address the realities of pain, power, and the past. With clarity and honesty, Adrian Pei shows how facing these realities can lead to compassion, advocacy, and wisdom for a better future. This book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to see genuinely multicultural organizations thrive.”
                                            Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making: Recovering Our                                              Creative Calling and Strong and Weak, partner at Praxis
Inside Outsider: My Journey As A Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for All of Us Bryan Loritts (Zondervan) $17.99 I hope you know Bryan Lorritts — he’s a good, good guy, a fabulous preacher, and a perfect leader to bridge the divide between whites and black, especially between those inside or outside of the evangelical subculture. As a graduate of what is now called Cairne University — previously Philadelphia Bible College — he knows white evangelicalism well. One of my own great heroes, Tom Skinner, from New Jersey, was influential in the Loritts family; Skinner, too, was a great example of a black preacher and evangelist who travelled often in white circles. I met Skinner often in college as he spoke and taught in CCO circles or with his friend Tony Campolo.  With a great foreword by John Ortberg, Inside Outsider will be appealing to many of our Hearts & Minds customers since we know many trust and respect Ortberg.
Loritts is the lead pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in the Silicon Valley; he previously pastored churches in Memphis and Manhattan. Now he also is the president of the Kainos Movement, an organization aimed at establishing more multiethnic churches in America.

As he notes, “It’s tiring to always play the part of a stranger. We long for home.”  Ahh, yes, but does that mean just being among those that look just like us? Can “home” be a place where even outsiders feel like insiders? Can those who are people of color in predominantly white evangelical spaces ever be comfortable? Can we honor the fact that theology and spiritual formation always is influenced by our own cultural lenses and outlooks and that is never neutral?

He likens some white folks to those Americans who travel abroad but can’t imagine that they have an accent. We are all too unaware of our ethnic theological accents that we carry.

Loritts wisely thinks it’s good to listen to others whose stories and accents (theological and cultural and literal) are different then out own. We can move “with God toward a holy vision of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “life together.'” Insider Outsider bears witness to that and with lots of fascinating stories and good Scripture study, helps us all in our longing for home and “belonging in the family of God.”
It’s a fine, fine, gentle and positive book which will be helpful for many who are wanting a helpful, reliable guide to all this hard stuff. One of the Best of 2018.
Intersecting Realities: Race, Identity, and Culture in the Spiritual-Moral Life of Young Asian Americans edited by Hak Joon Lee (Wipf & Stock) $23.00  What a fascinating glimpse into Asian American young adults and how complexities of race and ethnicity (and nationality) influences this important rising cohort. There is more pain within Asian American communities than many realize and much hard stuff to deal with as youth transition into the young adult world. This book is a must, therefore, for anyone working campus ministry or who is keeping current with the recent batch of books about contemporary generations and young adult outreach.
Here is what it says on the back cover; it puts it well:
Experiencing racial marginalization in society and pressures for success in family, Asian American Christian young adults must negotiate being socially underpowered, culturally dissonant, and politically marginal. To avoid misunderstandings and conflicts within and without their communities, more often than not they hide their true thoughts and emotions and hesitate to engage in authentic conversations outside their very close-knit circle of friends. In addition, these young adults might not find their church or Christian fellowship to be a safe and hospitable place to openly struggle with all of these sorts of questions, all the while lacking adequate vocabulary or resources to organize their thoughts. This book responds to these spiritual-moral struggles of Asian American young people by theologically addressing the issues that most intimately and immediately affect Asian American youths’ sense of identity–God, race, family, sex, gender, friendship, money, vocation, the model minority myth, and community– uniquely and consistently from the contexts of Asian American young adult life. Its goal is to help young Asian Americans develop a healthy, balanced, organic sense of identity grounded in a fresh and deeper understanding of the Christian faith.
Consider this quote by a remarkable writer and memoirist, Russell Jeung:
Intersecting Realities employs the perfect combination of personal narrative, cutting-edge thinking, and sharp biblical reflection to explore today’s key issues facing Asian American Christians. Subsequently, it’s a readable, intelligent, and applicable book that is both pastoral and prophetic. I’m very grateful for the wisdom shared by each of the contributing authors and know that it will bless its readers. –Russell Jeung, author of At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus Among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors

Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey Sarah Shin (IVP) $16.00  Of course, racism is a sin and our divisions and prejudices are hurtful, but — let’s face it — pretending we are all the same, or saying we “don’t see color” is just dumb. Of course we see color and gender and other things that make us, and our neighbors, who we are. To try not to is, frankly, disrespectful and not a helpful thing to say to a person of color.  Some of what we see could be considered wounds, even, but (again, we should say this over and over) race and ethnicity and skin tone and the possibility of unique cultural practices are not part of what theologians call “the fall” (and sin) but are part of the good, created order. Again, our colors are what God intended. What God calls “very good” in Genesis 1 reverberates down to the realities of our current world, so we can say that color and race and ethnicities are good gifts from a creative God. Racism may be wrong in countless ways, but race, as such, is good.

So how do we steward well our own unique make-up? How can we honor and celebrate our ethnic journey in helpful and life-giving ways without making an idol of our own unique make-up? This is a gem of a book, inviting us to consider we need a strong sense of ethnic identity and how God can redeem and use our racial histories. Yes, there’s some hard stuff in here — we cannot deny that in a fallen world our ethnic journeys indeed need redeeming. But we can steward these gifts well, and Sarah Shin is a fabulous resource specialist to help us.

Sarah Shin is a speaker and trainer in evangelism, by the way, for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who tries so very hard with so much good intention to get this stuff right. Ms. Shin is impressive to say the least — she has a master’s degree in theology from Gordon Conwell and another master’s in city planning and development from MIT. She and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice Eric Mason (Moody Press) $14.99  Oh my, Reverend Mason is a passionate, compelling, voice from urban Philly — we’ve met him at Jubilee at time or two — and while he is non-compromising in his call for the church to become woke, he is regularly engaged with theologically conventional white evangelicals. One could hardly ask for a more dramatic and fun speaker, rooted in contemporary culture and experience and yet fully reliable in conventional theological, Biblical truth.  In fact, the very white, seriously Reformed, Dr. Ligon Duncan — who says he’s about “the least ‘woke’ person you could meet” — wrote one of the two forewords (the other is by John Perkins.) This is an urgent call to learn, to care, to rise up. It’s nicely designed, an engaging read. Good stuff. Highly recommended.

The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation Miles McPherson (Howard Books) $26.00  I’m not going to lie — I like Miles McPherson, an upbeat former pro football player turned pastor but I may not have chosen to read this if I wasn’t on a committee considering a book award and was asked to consider it since it has was on a short list. Rev. McPherson is a dynamic communicator, a clear writer, a conventionally inspirational evangelical conference speaker, and as a black man, he surely has sensitivities to racial injustice and social issues. But I didn’t realize he’d have that much to say, or that much beyond “God loves us so in Christ’s Kingdom we should all get along.” We need more profound analysis, better theological depth, and more anguished and passionate writing.

And you know what? I couldn’t put this easy-to-read, inspiring, evangelical volume down! It was compelling with lots of stories, lots of Bible, lots of insight, plain-spoken, with a light touch, calling us to follow Christ as His agents of reconciliation. I’m not sure why Rick Warren calls it “a landmark book” but it is compelling and enjoyable and informative and maybe just what some need for a gentle, kind, and eye-opening call to be a “third way.”

What does this inspiring pastor mean by a “third way”? He is concerned, obviously, about racial hatred and prejudices but he thinks that we continue to be stuck in an “us vs them” approach. That’s it, one is either with us or with them. A Christian third way is based on honor and outreach. He preaches it really well.

McPherson has played in the NFL and has seen a lot. He is himself mixed race, so even as he was growing up he was teased and rejected by both the black and white communities.  He knows what he’s talking about and this is a gentle, sensible, spiritually clear resource.

As Sam Rodriquez (President of the National Hispanic Church Leadership Conference) puts it:

The Third Option will not just inspire you; it will equip you with the necessary tools to advance facilitate, and usher in a spirit of unity. You will not just be blessed, you will be transformed.

By the way, there’s a nice foreword by Drew Brees.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Jemar Tisby (Zondervan) $21.99  Although this publisher has not done many books on this topic, this one is simply extraordinary and, in part due to his own energetic social media presence and no-compromise outspoken teaching, it is perhaps the book of 2019 in this field. This is important. If you haven’t ordered it from us yet, you should seriously consider it.

The Color of Compromise is certainly one of the most talked about books on a Christian publishing house in years. While it officially has a 2019 copyright, I had an early edition so I read most of it in 2018 and we were taking pre-orders in 2018 so forgive me for stretching the rules just a bit here and honoring this very, very important, very informative work.

Of course there have been many other books that tell the story of racial oppression and the vivid injustices faced by African people who were enslaved and by black Americans even after emancipation and into the Antebellum Era. Who doesn’t know at least a little about the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow and lynchings and the vile treatment of those working against segregation and voter rights, about voter suppression and the implicit bias and institutional racism in everything from banking to policing to education? Sure it is an ugly bit of history, but we need books like to inform those who don’t know and to remind those of us who do. Few have told it so well, with an eye to how the church was complicity and compromised. As the publisher summarizes: The Color of Compromise:

…reveals the chilling connection between the church and racism throughout American history. A survey of the ways Christians of the past have reinforced theories of racial superiority and inferiority provides motivation for a series of bold actions believers must take to forge a future of equity and justice.

Mr. Tisby is is a lively and thoughtful educator and we are very, very glad he wrote this book. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, has an MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary (in Jackson, MS) and is the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He has spoken nation-wide at conferences and his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, CNN, and Vox. He is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century.

Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & A New Way Forward Skot Welch & Rick Wilson with Andi Cumbo-Floyd (Herald Press) $16.99  This, friends, is surely one of the  fine and helpful titles of 2018 and is one more example of the many, many good books being done on race and racism. And, further, it’s a great example of the wise and deeply Christian insights offered by Herald Press, a Mennonite-related publishing house. We carry all their new releases and recommend that you pay attention when they do new books.

Plantation Jesus itself has a back story that may make you want to be a part of this — buying a few, maybe, and spreading the word. Rick Wilson (a white guy) died during the writing of the book and his friend (and former podcast partner, Skot Welch) finished it, in part as a way to honor Wilson’s brave and relentless work as a racially-sensitive journalist. But Rick really was the better writer of the pair, so Skot employed old Hearts & Minds pal, Andi Cumbo-Floyd (who herself has written a striking memoir about race and the enslaving of people called The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of My Home) to join in helping polish the manuscript started by Skot and the late Rick Wilson. The result, as the great Patricia Raybon (author of My First White Friend) puts it, is “a healing triumph.”

Get that: a healing triumph!

Of course for it to be truly healing it has to be true. That is, it has to tell the hard historical story of white supremacy with candor and grit, and it does, with what one reviewer called “fearless urgency,” As Rachel Held Evans says, it is a “must read” because  it is “raw, unflinching, and yet ultimately hopeful.”

“Plantation Jesus”, as they call him, is a (false) god who legitimized slavery. This Jesus wasn’t bothered by Jim Crow. By portrayals of Jesus as white, a god who is “comfortable with bigotry, and an idol that distorts the message of the real Savior.”

Can anything be more important than discovering and knowing the real Jesus? Can a church shaped by an inadequate or even wrong and hurtful Jesus ever find real renewal? For the sake of our churches, for the sake of our witness and work in the world, for the sake of fidelity to the real Palestinian, Semitic Christ, we simply have to find a way to understand, renounce, reform, and move away from the racist baggage that comes with “Plantation Jesus” and join up and move towards and find grace from the real, Biblical, Jesus. Plantation Jesus can help, believe me.

Justin Timbay has written the very important history of compromised faith espeically regarding complicity in racism in the history of the US, and in many ways, this book explores some similar ground. But, to be honest, it has more vibrant alternatives, more stories of transformation, more ways to invite readers to “encounter the Christ of the disenfranchised.”  Andi has this story in her bones, as her own memoir explains. Skot — a black man — starts the book telling about how his (white) best friend (Rick) had his back. I dare you to read even a few pages into Plantation Jesus and not be choking back tears, smiling, and eager to race forward to see what happens next. Kudos to Skot Welch, the late Rick Wilson, and Andi Cumbo-Floyd for bringing us a rare and special book, one we very highly recommend.

By the way, does anybody out there do racial sensitive seminars, workshops on being an anti-racist church, diversity training, and the like? Their chapter at the end called “Resources and Exercises” is amazing and you will draw on it, I’m sure. It is followed by a bibliography of books and films and documentaries which is (even though not annotated) very, very useful.

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (IVP) $20.00  This good book which released just a year ago, in March of 2018, was one of the volumes that captured many reviewers and had quite a buzz for a bit last Spring. It did want other books this year have done — named the legacy of “American’s Original Sin” and how “slaveholder religion” has not been adequately excised and exorcized from our faith communities. This is a mighty book, important and chilling and powerful. Jonathan, you may recall, came out of Eastern University where he shared a journey somewhat similar to his pal Shane Claiborne. Exposure to healthy evangelical piety and prophetic social critique  and a wholistic vision of the Kingdom of God shook his world as he had to re-think his Southern fundamentalist assumptions about church, state, poverty, war, community, mission —  and race. Drawn to the ‘new monasticism” he took vows to serve the poor and live simply among those on the margins of the Empire (as they put in their early years.) After years of praying and living and serving among mostly poorer small town folks in the South he has written what may be his most enduring book, inviting us all to find freedom from toxic faith based on white supremacy. It is a remarkable read.

William J. Barber wrote a passionate, moving foreword to Reconstructing the Gospel which hints at just how important this is and how widely respected Jonathan is. We have been grateful to get to sell this vital, feisty book and invite you to read it, and others like it. Let’s make sure that the books published in 2018 aren’t mere fads, and are taken seriously, prayerfully considered, and fuel for our own efforts to “reconstruct the gospel.”

After a strong critique of “slaveholder religion” the second have offers visions and practices to help heal the land by starting with congregational renewal. It rejects (as a chapter in the first half puts it) “the gilded cross in the public square” and invites us to a “Christ-like” posture. This includes moral revival, having church, and “healing the heart.” (He’s been reading Benedict, too, by the way, so themes of staying put and being in community and practicing the presence of God are present as keys to a spirituality that can sustain us in the struggle.

You’ve got to read the Epilogue, a “Letter to my Grandfather and my Son.”  Oh my, yes.

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love John M. Perkins (Moody Press) $15.99 Doubtlessly there are few people who have so influenced American evangelicalism as much as John Perkins. From his 1970s book about being tortured by white cops in Mississippi and his subsequent conversion to Christ (Let Justice Roll Down) to his founding of the Voice of Calvary community and the influential Christian Community Development Association, from his tireless touring and speaking and publishing, Perkins (with a third grade education and several honorary doctorates) has left his mark for the better. To the extent that many evangelicals (despite what the media says) cares about racial justice, poverty, even the redistribution of wealth (one of Perkin’s famous 3 Rs), we have this old saint to thank.

One Blood, he says, is his final book. It deserves reading and reading twice. It deserves awards and applause. With the foreword by Rick Warren and the afterword by his young white rock star friend, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, One Blood invites us to keep up the good fight, in the name of God, in the power of love. He highlights a few multi-ethnic churches that are doing this kind of work, so there are a few other contributors. Karen Waddles helped with the book and there is a nice study guide, making it ideal for book clubs and small groups. One Blood is really fine, from a hero and wise elder. Don’t miss it.

Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission edited by Love L. Secrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Yong with contributions by Willie Jennings, Elizabeth-Conde-Frazer, Andrea Smith, Jonathan Tran, and others (IVP Academic) $30.00  Wow, just the title alone is pretty intense, eh? Of course, there are layers of meaning to the question (not to mention those quotation marks) and even though it is a solidly evangelical publishing house that published this collection of academic pieces, it is serious, prophetic, hard-hitting, and admittedly provocative. For anyone who is keeping current on the more academic studies of faith and race theory and missional justice work, this simple is essential. Let me say that again: essential.

The question of how to “de-colonize” missions should be obviously crucial; what it means to “decenter” whiteness in our study of missions (and even how we should more deeply understand Dr. King’s “beloved community”) is burning. This big book has admittedly many authors from various perspectives but it hangs together as a momentous manifesto.

This book is nicely dedicated to a handful of scholars who founded the multilingual and multicultural programs at Fuller Theological Seminary, the most diverse seminary in the world, I believe. One of those is Bill Pannell, an early influence on us, a black, evangelical gentlemen I met in my college years through the CCO and who sometimes would call us in our early days at the shop to encourage us to keep on keeping on. To see his name on the inside touched my heart. C is a serious and extraordinary book of interest to anyone serious about global missions, evangelistic theory, race studies and cross-cultural theology.

Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity edited by David Evans & Peter Dula (Cascade Books) $17.00  As many readers of BookNotes know, Coates has been perhaps the most important public intellectual writing profoundly about racism in our culture in many years. We’ve long carried his moving memoir about growing up in Baltimore, The Beautiful Struggle. He became famous as a journalist (and many of his previously published pieces from places such as The Atlantic were published in the must-have collection from 2017 We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy; it is now in paperback, by the way.) HIs most famous and beloved and controversial work, though, is Between the World and Me which is memoir and essay and polemic and story and prophecy. Appreciate his deep, deep Afro-center anger and righteous call for change or not, he is a scholar and artist and pundit to be reckoned with.

Evans and Dula are thoughtful Christian scholars at a Mennonite institution of higher education, and they have taught this atheists work in the classroom. Out of this engagement with Between the World and Me and other of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s polemics comes this slim volume where they invited other Christian academics to offer chapters thinking about Coates’s views.  This is a beautiful example of the integration of faith and scholarship, of academia and the real world, of Christian higher ed engaging the issues of the day by listening to and entering into respectful dialogue with one of the culture’s major voices. Kudos to Evans and Dula and to Eastern Mennonite where they teach.

Here is the Table of Contents and the contributing authors:

  • Echoes from the Mecca and the Capstone: Christianity and Social Justice at Howard University  – Cheryl J. Sanders
  • Black Futures and Black Fathers – Vincent Lloyd
  • Shall We Awake? – Jennifer Harvey
  • The American Nightmare and the Gospel of Plunder – David Evans
  • What Does He Mean by, “They Believe They Are White”? – Reggie Williams
  • Hope’s Vagaries: How Ta-Nehisi Coates and Vincent Harding Convinced Me That Hope Is Not the Only Option  – Tobin Miller Shearer
  • Between the Tragic and the Unhopeless: Coates, Anti-blackness, and the Tireless Work of Negativity – Joseph Winters

White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege Amy Julia Becker (NavPress) $15.99  I hope you recall that we celebrated this a time or two previously at BookNotes. We so respect Becker as a writer and thinker; her previous books have been about her journey of being a mother of a child with intellectual disabilities. (You really should read A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny or her delightful, but smart, Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most.) This recent one, certainly a notable, best Book of 2018, reflects on privilege in a way that is thoughtful and wise and balanced and assessable. There is plenty of fire in Ms. Becker, but she has a different style and vision than, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a thoughtful, classy, brave book, very nicely done.

Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in our Diversity Terrell Carter (Chalice Press) $19.99 This thin book is concise and potent and very useful. In a no-nonsense style, Rev. Dr. Carter — a St. Louis pastor, seminary professor, former police officer, and now Director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas — shows us how to bring awareness and strategies for helping congregations discern what they can do. There’s some personal narrative, some global thinking, some Bible teaching and a whole lot of good sense, learned the hard way.  Carter draws on legendary, important black thinkers such as James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore and respected contemporary practitioners like Jospeh Brandt and Kristen Du Mez and Michael Emerson. Perfect for those who want to hear a somewhat progressive voice of a historic black Baptist. There is a free study guide available for download at the publishers’s website.

Anxious To Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism Carolyn Helsel (Chalice Press) $19.99  We are glad for this Presbyterian seminary prof and race training facilitator who has written a very useful tool — award winning, actually. (It was named as a 2018 Book of the Year from the Academy of Parish Clergy, a very prominent award.) Anxious to Talk About It (what a great title!) is a book has been used by mainline denominational groups I know and they have found it very useful, open and fair and inviting. Let’s face it — many white people are overwhelmed when this topic comes up, anxious, indeed. Helsel offers tools to engage racial justice concerns with less fear, more compassion, and more knowledge. We’re impressed and anxious — as in eager — to celebrate it here and invite you to use it. It’s got a lot of really great ideas and guidance for leading discussion groups and workshops and such. (Chalice Press offers a free group leader’s guide, too, at their website.)

By the way, don’t miss Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders also by Rev. Carolyn Helsel (Chalice Press; $26.99.) This is a homiletics book that Dr, Helsel published later in the year, after her important Anxious to Talk About It. It’s a useful guide for all sorts of preachers. What a good year 2018 has been with these great resources and tools. Kudos to Chalice for caring about raising these questions in our mainline churches.

 

Healing our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing The Church and Renewing the World Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill (IVP) $17.00 Ms Kim is an important scholar and activist and has written other good work but here she shines as she offers an extraordinary, broad and visionary picture of how a renewed (reconciled) church can help bring about restoration and justice for the common good. As we noted when we first announced this in the summer of 2018, this is surely one of the most important books of its kind this year, inviting us to all kinds of fresh ideas and new practices and faithful experiments with how to be peacemaking people, renewed and renewing, for the sake of the world.

There are actually nine transforming practices described here, and then there are meaty appendices, discussion questions, forms for use in conversation, even accountability stuff to use in the local setting. This is really useful for those who are serious.  It can be used by all kinds of congregations, by the way, but Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim is ordained in the PC(USA.)

The number of impressive scholars and pastors and activists who have endorsed this notable itself — from Soong-Chan Rah and Randy Woodley to missional Aussie Michael Frost to the vibrant black preacher Jacqui Lewis. There is a very important foreword by Willie James Jennings.

This book is simply incredible…it is robust in theology, rich in ecclesiology, and practical in application. Tara Beth Leach (pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena.)

 

What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin’s Press) $24.99 This compact, chunky-sized, hardback looks and feels like a companion volume to Dyson’s 2017, powerful Tears We Cannot Stop and may be even more important as that one. Of course, we carry almost anything this Philly-based, nationally-revered sociologist and black pastor writes, but What Truth Sounds Like was particularly interesting to me. It ruminates on the “epochal” meeting in the spring of 1963 between Robert Kennedy and James Baldwin. You may have heard of that famous gathering held in Bobby Kennedy’s New York penthouse. Other guests for the conversation included beloved entertainers (and serious civil rights leaders) Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and a young social activist named Jerome Smith.

Here’s the gist of that argument, as the publisher describes it on the flap of the book cover:

Baldwin and friends charged RFK with being ignorant of black life and struggle, and Kennedy countered that the black elite emphasized witness — attesting to suffering — over policy.

Of course, in different ways, that debate continues today. (Or it will, for those who read this astute little book.) The cover copy continues:

Every group represented by the people in that room — politicians, artists, intellectuals, activists — has the power to fix what still ails us. Examining the role of everyone from Jay-Z to Kamala Harris and everything from Black Lives Matters to Black Panther, Dr. Dyson asks us all to seize Baldwin’s challenge.

Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster) $17.00 This book came out a year ago, but we celebrate it now, here, since the paperback edition came out late in 2018. What a fine, fine work of history — a page-turner, actually — and an extraordinary account of the black culture of mid-20th century Pittsburgh. Here’s the thing: they aren’t kidding when they talk about the Pittsburgh Renaissance in the revered phrase similar to the Harlem Renaissance. I used to live in Pittsburgh — and read the historic black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier sometimes, and had friends deeply involved in life in the famed The Hill district and such, but I had no idea of the stunning breadth of this beautiful, consequential era. From the 1920s to the 1950s so much was happening in the black community in Pittsburgh. Besides the nationally-known aforementioned paper, there were playwrights like August Wilson, two Negro Leagues ball teams, jazz giants, artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, a “citadel of black aspiration in music, sports, business, and culture.” What an enticing and wonderfully-written bit of American history this is.

Whitaker, by the way, has a memoir called My Long Trip Home and is a renowned journalist having worked at the top of CNN and NBC News and was the senior editor of Newsweek. He knows his stuff.  I think nearly anyone who likes history or wants to understand black culture would enjoy the untold story of Smoketown — “the other great black renaissance.” And if you are from Pittsburgh — what are you waiting for?

The Story of Latino Protestants in the United States Juan Francisco Martinez (Eerdmans) $28.00 Kudos to Eerdmans for seeing the need for a book like this and to Dr. Martinez, a professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a fifth-generation American Latino Protestant himself, we learn, and is considered one of the leading experts on the movement and its colorful history.

When we said 2018 was a banner year for studies of race and cultural diversity, we weren’t kidding. This is a groundbreaking book, the only serious resource of its kind. It provides the first major historical overview of Latino Protestantism in the United States. It starts in the early nineteenth century and explores the movement up until the present time. Rave reviews grace the back from the likes of Gabriel Salguero.

United Methodist scholar and esteemed church historian Justo Gonzalez nicely offers a very good foreword. This is a major contribution.

Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence Natalie Kohn, Noemi Vega Quinones & Kristy Harza Robinson (IVP) $16.00 Okay, this is another I am going to stretch the rules just a bit in order to list this here. We received this right at the very end of 2018 — like maybe the second to last day of the year and while it has a formal 2019 copyright, it might have been the last new book we put out in 2018. And so, we’ll formally award it, I’m sure, as one of the Best Books fo 2019, but we’re jumping in early and celebrating it now, too. As we explained early on, this is a book of Biblical study, exploring woman of the Bible through the lenses of thoughtful Latina women today.

As Sandra Maria Van Opstal (author of the great book on multi-ethnic worship, The Next Worship) puts it, Hermanas is “a gift to anyone teaching and preaching from the Scriptures to have this in their theological library.”

Agreed. But, I’d say, not just those teaching and preaching, but anybody who cares about faith formation, the Bible, Christian discipleship, mentorship, leadership, public witness, or making a faithful difference — these Biblical stories of twelve often disenfranchised but clever women come alive in the hands of these Latinas.

This is a very special book written by three mujeres poderosas and I hardly know anything else like it. Felicidades!

Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation  Jaun Videl (Atria Books) $26.00 Videl is a respected commentator and essayist whose work is appearing all over, from NPR to Esquire and Rolling Stone. He is a thoughtful pundit on issues of race, urban culture, hip-hop and pop music and, yes, now, fatherhood. The book starts in vivid writing, with pages that seem to shift from exceptionally creative writing, pushing the limits normal speech with high-octane prose laden with street slang, Latino culture, and old-school rap references to fairly straightforward explanation of his youth, raised my a caring mom and violent dad who left early on deepening his life of drug dealing and jail. It’s no wonder the kid took to petty crime and hard skateboarding and is moving to hear how he found solace in 80s and 90s rap.

It is harrowing and an immersion into street life and hard hip hop and Latinex culture, but one realizes from back cover raves that Videl settles down and learns to become not only a respected pop music critic but a (postmodern) sort of good family man. He wants to be a good dad.  Rap Dad is the telling of this story — a triumphant tale of moral improvement and  learning the art of caring fatherhood as well as the exploration of the influential role (for better and for worse) of the rap subculture.  There’s serious discussion of tracks and rhymes and beats and superstars, especially the stuff he grew up on in end of the 20th century Miami.

(Although — he’s still at it; the playlist offered at the end is pretty up to date — proper.)

It’s not every book that narrates an episode at which I was an observer and even though it was merely in passing, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  What fun — in passing he mentions hearing hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco being interviewed by black preacher/philosopher Cornel West at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Music. Later (in an unexpected turn in this book on a general market/secular publisher) he takes an interest in church, talks about God and faith, and listens to some thoughtful, Christian rap and hi-hop. (Indeed, he name checks faith leaders like Alex Medina and Sho Baraka and Lecrae in his acknowledgments.) Man, I didn’t see that coming.

Rap Dad is a very fine, very creative and pretty edgy bit of writing exploring the interface of race, rap, and family. It’s not for everyone, although many of us need to be reminded of the heartbreak of troubled kids without fathers. Much of this is straight, Latino memoir.  It is not only about race and urban injustice, but it’s a very appropriate read for this list and will be an enjoyable one for those paying attention to pop culture. It was unlike any other book I read from last year and important to be listed as one of the notable books of 2018.

Check out these endorsements:

In Rap Dad, Juan Vidal captures all of the angles of being a rap fan who falls in love with the genre and then fights to stay in love with it at all costs, despite life’s many twists. In reading this book, I learned a greater love for what I already love, I learned that there is a future in which that love can remain abundant, limitless, and endlessly fulfilling. I am thankful for this personal, funny, insightful ride.”— Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Rap Dad is a page-turner. It’s drenched in history and encompasses the energy, fire, and passion that is hip-hop. Vidal is a brilliant storyteller with a knack for prose. This book is a reminder of why I can’t live without writing.”— D. Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Beast Side and The Cook Up

Rap Dad is a tender, occasionally heartbreaking, and exceedingly honest look at what it means to be a modern father in America (and, really, what it’s meant to be a father in America in decades past). Vidal writes with all the grace and insight you’d want from someone untangling such intricate, intimate subject matter.”—Shea Serrano, New York Times bestselling author of The Rap Yearbook and Basketball And Other Things

Homeland Insecurity: A Hip-Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Context Daniel White Hodge (IVP Academic) $27.00  I’ve read a few of doc Hodge’s good books — check out his 2010 very good The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology. (He also did another scholarly work in 2018 called Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel: A Post-Soul Theological Exploration published last Spring by Haymarket Books ($28.99) that has gotten critical acclaim.) But this one should be considered a vital work for 2018 and needs to be on our list of Best Books of the Year. I wrote a bit about it last summer at BookNotes, saying, Homeland Insecurity is a profound and heady study of how we can develop a missiology (that is, a philosophy of contextualized mission) in our post-soul music, post-civil rights political era. This is important, serious, and highly recommended although it is, necessarily, looking at some hard stuff with course language.

Hodge is dead serious and brings the zeal and directness of hip hop and rap to the question of missiology, asking how passion for justice and authentic incarnation will be enhanced and given credibility if it takes serious the message from the streets. Can hip hop provide methodology, insight, an approach for missional living? Right on.

A Perilous Truth: Thinking About Race, Inequality, and the Law (The New Press) $14.99 I am sure almost anyone who reads BookNotes knows how we value the remarkable work of legal aid work of literal life-saver Bryan Stevenson, one of the great legal activists and social reformers of our generation. His Just Mercy (and the 2018 release of a version adapted for youth called Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice ) is one of our all time favorite books. Well, did you know that 2018 also saw a small hardback narrating a conversation with Bryan and three other very important figures in the modern civil rights movement? A Perilous Truth explores the legal aspects of racial injustices and is a must-read for anyone interested in social injustice and certainly for anyone in law, whether an attorney, judge, or law student. We comment this book to you as it allows you to listen in on a stimulating and provocative conversation.

Again, you should know our Christian acquaintance Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Eastern University and Harvard Law School. The other authors are Sherrilyn Ifill (the sister of the late Public Broadcasting journalist Gwen Ifill, who grew up in Steelton, PA) who now is president of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund; Loretta Lynch who was the eighty-third attorney general of the US, and Anthony Thompson, a professor of clinical law and the faculty director fo the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law. Together they offer a “blisteringly candid discussion of the American dilemma in the Age of Trump.” It is, according to the Kirkus Review, “A wake-up call for the American Dream.”

How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick: Restoring Health and Wellness to Our Communities Veronica Squires & Breanna Lathrop (IVP) $17.00 Of course toxic buildings and environmental dangers are not exclusively the plight of those living in parts of cities populated by people of color, but there is a thing called environmental racism, and it is undeniable that those in poorer neighborhoods often people of color, are plagued with bad water and industrial pollution and lead paint and asbestos and the like in levels much worse than wealthier and mostly whiter parts of town. Further, as Squires and Lathrop bravely discuss, even the psychological conditions of living with racial trauma has significant documented health repercussions. (I’m writing this just days after a police officer in Pittsburgh was exonerated for shooting a boy in the back as he was running away; a good friend of mine, a black pastor in ‘the burgh, wrote that he hardly feels safe in his own town.) These troubles — physical, sociological, psychological — impact the health of those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

We have long wished for a readable, affordable book about public health from a Christian perspective. And, we have long wished for a book about the poverty experienced by the urban underclass which includes more about substandard housing and the health problems associated with leaky pipes which cause mildew, sewage problems, asbestos, and the like.

How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick is a godsend and we congratulate IVP for being the first publisher to make this contribution to our understanding of how sin and dysfunction has badly effected our built environment and how social injustice literally has public health implications.

The book is well designed, handsome, interesting, well informed, passionate without being polemical, and a generous look at the stark realities of public health in old and often poor and often urban settings.

Kudos and many thanks to these authors. Here are their bios for those who might want to know solid credentials and be pleased to learn of their deep experience:

Veronica Squires is chief administrative officer for Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta. She previously served as director of corporate development for Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta and as the Georgia director of ministry partnerships for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She is a certified CCDA practitioner and serves on the advisory board for the Georgia Charitable Care Network.

Breanna Lathrop is chief operating officer and a family nurse practitioner for Good Samaritan Health Center. She earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice from Georgia Southern University and a Master’s of Public Health and a Master’s in Nursing from Emory University. She is passionate about eliminating health disparities through improving health care access and health outcomes among vulnerable populations, and has previously published on the social determinants of health.

Urban Ministry Reconsidered: Contexts and Approaches (Westminster/John Knox) $40.00  I simply don’t have time and space to do a major review of this and do it justice as it is extraordinary and covers so much ground. Here is what I wrote before at BookNotes when it first came out: Let me just note that if you know anybody who is seriously studying this topic, this is a major anthology, edited by leaders of the Metro-Urban Institute at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. These folks have decades of scholarship and practice as theologians and activists. There are chapters on poverty, housing, health, racism, missional church stuff, global insights, and lots more. It is fairly diverse theologically, mostly progressive in terms of social agenda, and pretty scholarly. It advances a number of fresh insights, offers current research and we have a few trusted friends (such as Lisa Slayton & Herb Kolbe of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation) who have chapters in it. There is nothing on the topic with so wide a scope on the market — again, further proof that 2018 has been an important year with publishers doing commendable work.

Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put Jose Humphreys (IVP) $16.00  I wrote about this earlier, too, and want to honor it again as a vital and important work from 2018. Here is some of what I said in one of my BookNotes announcements:

This great book is part of the Praxis imprint and, with the colorful cover, is immediately attractive. This is very much about a sense of place in the urban context and how our own stories and faith formation are tied to particular places. The author is a Puerto Rica pastor who has planted a multi-ethnic church in East Harlem and this book is ideal for anyone thinking practically about urban ministry.

Humphreys is pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church and I like that the church is described as being “involved in shalom-making in the city through facilitating conversation contemplation, and action across social, economic, cultural, and theological boundaries.”

Good, good evangelically-minded activist/scholars/pastors endorse this with rave reviews, from Soong-Chan Rah to Paul Sparks (of The New Parish) who says, “Go get this amazing book!”) to Lisa Sharon Harper, who says it is:

A beautiful love letter to the church about how to be church in our browning, decolonizing world…Every pastor’s next must-read.

Rethinking Incarceration Advocating for Justice That Restores Dominique Dubois Gilliard (IVP) $18.00 Most aware readers know about what is not called “mass incarceration” and the injustices told in such powerful narratives as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (surely one of the most moving memoirs and favorite books I read last year.) The classic in this field is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, that shows in detailed data and much number-crunching, that over and over and over, in state by state by state, people of color arrested for the exact same crime are given much harsher sentences than their white counterparts. This book is so important there have been several books about it and the phrase — the new Jim Crow — is now shorthand for this outrageous and indisputable example of systemic racism.

Enter Dominique DuBois Gillard, an advocate for reform, for restorative justice, for a distinctively Christian contribution to the debates and street level (and policy level) activism for change. “Mass incarceration has become a lucrative industry, and the criminal justice system is plagued with bias and unjust practices,” the book reminds us on the back cover.

“And the church has unwittingly contributed to the problem.”

Rethinking Incarceration is not the first Christian book to study prisons and prison reform — in stands in a centuries old tradition of faith-based efforts, that itself goes back to the earliest Christians. But it is a major contribution in part because of the astute and vital way it weaves racial analysis into the mix.  And it has gotten rave reviews from important reviewers and activists alike.

For instance, Publishers Weekly gave it a prized “starred review” saying is it “an outstanding contribution.” Soong-Chan Rah says it “should be now required reading for any thinking and feeling American Christian who wants to engage the topic of mass incarceration in a meaningful way.”

We all know that the United States has more people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers than any other country in the history of the world. We know something is very wrong, and Gilliard’s historical lens is a good place to help. His Biblical work is exciting and generative, and his practical and innovative interventions give us handles on things we can propose, pray for, and actually do. This book deserves to be taken seriously, to be well known, and is surely one of the most significant 2018 books for Christian who care about peace and justice and race and public discipleship. The book has a great cover, too —  our compliments to the designer.

Praise the Lord for Dominque DuBois Gilliard who is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is an ordained minister and has served in Oakland, Chicago and Atlanta.

Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope from Civil Society Anthony Bradley (Cambridge University Press) $34.99  This is certainly a major scholarly work, released last summer by one of the world’s oldest and most venerable publishing houses, the noble University of Cambridge. Dr. Bradley is a compelling and lively and funny gospel communicator — he speaks at our Jubilee conference from time to time, always to grand applause — and is a mature and careful thinker. He brings the implications of the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God (about which he has published) to many social concerns and issues and has several worthy books offering collections of essays. He has written much about human flourishing, moral formation, and freedom.

His recent Ending Overcriminalization is the fruit of years of research and offers a somewhat different take on the above mentioned work done by Michelle Alexander in her widely discussed The New Jim Crow which helped popularize the phrase “mass incarceration” and linking this to the so-called “war on drugs.” This matter of racial profiling and the conservative “drug war” and mass incarceration is one of the most urgent of topics in our day and this 2018 volume is one of the most provocative of contributions — it should be being read widely and reviewed seriously and debated robustly. It offers “more to the story” than Alexander’s thesis, based, it seems, on Bradley’s reading of empirical data (most people are not in prison for drug offenses) and his multi-dimensional Christian worldview. So much of the rise in prison population comes from violent crime, he argues, but it is true that most are not consistently violent or routine danger; the power of prosecutors to elevate crimes to more serious sentences. I am not a criminologist and don’t know how to parse social science research; I’ll admit I’m inadequately studied when it comes to a Biblically-faithful views of crime and punishment, restorative justice, prison reform, and the like. But I’ve got my hunches and I’m hoping that those more involved than I can do good reviews of this major work. We like Dr. Bradley a lot, honor his extraordinary output, including this academic work on a prestigious publisher. We hope many buy the book and learn of how his view (what loosely might be called more conservative than Alexander’s) and his critique of inadequate popular thinking about the causes of mass incarceration.

Call it conservative or Biblical or common sense or wholistic, Bradley reminds us that civil society — civic institutions, families, schools, churches and other features of our multi-faceted lives — must come in to play to shape the lives and uphold the dignity of those vulnerable to incarceration. He gives a lot of suggestions about things we can do, opportunities for involvement, and obstacles that have to be dealt with to shore up the social order in redemptive ways so that law and order and health and wholeness and justice and grace can reign in live giving ways. I’m glad for this multi-dimensional approach and how he studies both big policy stuff and personal matters as well. Perhaps we could call this approach personalism; is this adequate?

As a black scholar who has been outspoken about evangelical racism — and has compiled damning books showing evidence of systematic racial discrimination (see Black Scholars in White Spaces and Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions) Bradley is not afraid to be clear about injustice. However, he doesn’t fall in line with all the proposals emerging from those fired up about “the new Jim Crow.” We hope this book re-ignites a conversation and pushes us to better insight and better proposals.

Voices Rising: Women of Color Finding & Restoring Hope in the City edited by Shabrae Jackson Krieg & Janet Balasiri Singleterry (Servant Partners) $15.95  How glad we were when a mail-order customer invited us to check out this classy small press that does books on urban ministry and related mission topics. We ordered most of their books right away and we are thrilled to show them off. This one is just spectacular, a must-read, just-have resource for anyone interested in urban renewal or world missions or the experience of women in Christian ministry.

Voices Rising is a collection of chapters by various women of various cultures who are working among the worlds poorest, in slums and ghettos in big cities all over the world. For those who care about global missions or urban life, this puts you in those places and shares what it is like doing ministry in those hard, human, beautiful places.

Our friend Lisa Sharon Harper of the organization Freedom Road has a lovely blurb on the back and you can take it from her:

God has been at work in the hidden corners of the evangelical church; raising up evangelical women of color to enter the mission field again — for the sake of the preservation of the faith and the glory of God.

 

Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine Emily Bernard (Knopf) $25.95  You are just going to have to look the other way at the time stamp or something because this book came out early (very early) in 2019, so it isn’t a Best Book of 2018. But it is so, so good I just can’t not list it here, now. As I look back at all the books I’ve read and those I’ve browsed and those I’ve skimmed and those I’ve studied, there are a lot, old and new. Black is the Body garnered excellent advanced reviews and she is known for being an elegant, important writer. (Her rich and dramatic first book on the Harlem Renaissance (and a cat named Carl Van Vechten) was called “a landmark study” and  her Remember Me To Harlem was called by the eminent Henry Louis Gates “a major contribution to our understanding.” Bernard’s writing has been called scrupulous and magnificent.

And so, Black is the Body is, I predict and surely hope, will be one of the most discussed literary books of 2019. It begins with an awful, riveting piece about her being knifed as a Yale college student in a Cambridge coffeeshop (I’m still so angry at the rude surgeon that I must catch myself) and her deciphering how she does and doesn’t weave the questions of race into this brutal narrative is nothing short of brilliant. I was hooked on the first page and raving by the end of the first chapter.  As the dust jacket notes, “Bernard explores how that bizarre act of violence set her free and unleashed the storyteller in her.” She reminds us, vitally, that “the equation of writing and regeneration is fundamental to black American experience.”)

She is married to a white man and they live in Vermont, attending a Lutheran church. Her fascinating, precocious children often talk about their own skin color and race; oh, the parenting stuff is wonderful, tender and wise and honest. (It is surprising, perhaps, but I haven’t read much about families of color talking about the N-word with their little ones.)  An episode with her husband driving with her parents in the south — the infamous Green Book is mentioned — was so eye-opening I wept. Yet, in each of these interlocking dozen essays/episodes, she moves beyond a simplistic narrative of black innocence and white guilt. “Each is anchored in a mystery; each sets out to discover a new way of telling the truth.”

There is one story she tells of teaching African American literature to an earnest group of all white college students. Oh my, this is rich, honest stuff.

“Not every black person here is black in the same way,” she notes.

Once my mother pointed to a Donna Summer album cover that featured the singer’s face surrounded by long curly locks, “You have hair like this girl,” my mother said. I burst into tears right there in the record store. I went back to bands and barrettes.

“What are you afraid of?” asked a friend of my parents, a professor at a local university, a black woman with short, natural hair. “Why do you bind your hair?” It was fellowship hour at our church. We were standing side by side, each of us holding identical Styrofoam cups. I held mind tighter and then looked for the first moment to excuse myself. She was right; I was afraid. I was not until college that I gathered courage to free my hair. Once I did, I shuddered to realize that what I had been afraid of was simply being black.

Ms Bernard knows black experience from her own body, of course, and has pondered these things and shared them with us in clear, solid prose. She knows black literature — citing Du Bois,  Baldwin and Hurston — and is obviously a learned, thoughtful professor of English and  a strong writer. Black is the Body includes stories we can all enjoy, by which we can be moved and taught, edified.  We are glad for the many great books on theme about race and racial justice that were published in 2018. And for this one newly published early in 2019.

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Lent 2019 — a few good reads, old and new. ON SALE NOW.

Just to be clear: you can easily buy any of these from us here on-line by clicking on the “order here” button below (at the end of the BookNotes column.) By each book we show the ordinary retail price but we will deduct 20% off of the shown price. You’ve got a calculator and can do the math, although we’re happy to explain any questions you have. (Click on “inquiry” if you have any questions or want to contact me.)Our secure order form is interactive so you can type in whatever you’d like and we’ll follow up. It isn’t utterly efficient, but we love being in touch with our customers and confirm everything with a personal note and some old school, earnest customer service. How can we help?

Do you do Lent?  Do you need some resource, some guide, some extra inspiration to ponder this time of year? Whether you are a liturgical aficionado or a beginner, we can help.

I recall growing up hearing about Lent, I suppose, but it wasn’t really an emphasis in my old EUB church, not even when EUBs merged with the Methodists. Wesley’s roots were high church Anglican, of course, but we were a small town congregation of common folk and we didn’t do the fancy stuff. Or anything that seemed Catholic. My Lutheran friends didn’t even talk about it, as far as I recall.

Years later, while working with nuns and other Roman Catholics — people who knew Dorothy Day, even — at Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center I still didn’t quite get this penitential season of Lent. I figured God forgives us in Christ so, rooted in the Reformation’s discovery of free grace, we didn’t need to belabor things. While working against nuclear weapons and world hunger and pondering daily the fate of the earth, giving up chocolate seemed trivial, at best. (Again, even though I was reading Merton and Nouwen and Richard Foster and the like, the deeper consequences of fasting, the re-ordering of our desires, making space for God’s inner transformation, didn’t quite make sense. I suppose I hadn’t discovered Dallas Willard, yet, let alone read You Are What You Love. But I digress.) I’d say smug stuff like I’m giving up sin for Lent. Or apathy.

Which, actually, comes closer to the reason for the season, I think. It maybe was Brian Walsh in Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times who reminded me that in Walt Brueggemann’s profound The Prophetic Imagination he riffs on the spiritual dangers of a-pathos, apathy that is, the lack of pathos — deep, tragic, caring. Our hearts grow hard and our lives are so enmeshed with the ways of the world we don’t really want anything to change. We don’t care. Discontent, though, can be a spiritual gift, motivating us to holy reform. If anything, the season of Lent should teach us to care and to not care in the right way. We can be deepened and formed to care about the suffering of this sad world and to not care what others thing about our radical commitments to Christ’s ways. Or, as John Piper sometimes reminds us, to not care about our own suffering — our neighbor’s good and God’s glory is the true treasure we seek. We can take up the vocation of offering the world a prophetic word of critique, healing, and hope only if we care deeply enough to weep (subversive) tears and to host some disregard for our own comfort and success.

So, here are a handful of books that might point us in the direction of being formed in the ways of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the foreteller of the Messiah, John the Baptist, and the Suffering Servant Himself, Jesus the Christ.

Some of these are new, some are older ones I wanted to remind you about. All are on sale and we would be grateful if you used the order form button below to buy a few. Best wishes.

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith Jen Pollock Michel (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 This isn’t a Lenten book, per se, but, as I hinted above, Lent may be a time to think about our desires, about reforming our loves, about ordering our inner life in ways that are consistent with God’s intentions. Okay, that sounds fine, but what about ambition? What about women, especially, who in our culture are often expected not to want what they want. (Don’t get me started on Augustine’s dumb views of women and desire and sex and such.) Jen Pollock Michel is a great writer and we were early adopters of this fine work. It has a nice foreword by Katelyn Beaty, herself a good writer. This is written mostly in a narrative style, almost like a memoir, and calls us to ponder how God refines and even purifies our longings and heals our unmet hopes and dashed dreams. This is a great book and just might be what you need. Well worth reading during Lent.

A World Worth Saving: Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action George Hovaness Donigian (Upper Room) $13.99  A few customers got this from us last year and said it was very useful.  Here is what the publisher says about it:

God thinks the world is worth saving and invites us to believe this too. For anyone who thinks Lent is a seemingly endless time of self-sacrifice and introspection, this 6-week study offers a breath of fresh air. Author George Donigian challenges readers to connect their inner spiritual life with outward actions of compassion in the world. He inspires readers to pray about daily news events and respond to the needs around them by serving others, feeding the hungry, fighting injustice, offering healing, and extending friendship. Give up apathy for Lent this year!

A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $13.00 I mentioned Brueggemann and his remarkable Prophetic Imagination. Here is one he wrote a few seasons ago, a short Lenten collection. As the publisher reminds us, “We begin our Lenten journey addressed by the remarkable assurance that the God who summons us is the God who goes along with us.” If I am attending well to this, I can get choked up just reading that line. Of course, this feisty, poetic, scholarly, passionate Old Testament scholar is good on stuff pertaining to times of wilderness and wandering “from newly freed Hebrew slaves in exile to Jesus’s temptation in the desert.” God has always called people out of their safe, walled cities into uncomfortable places, revealing paths they would never have chosen.

As it says on the back, “Despite our culture of self-indulgence, we too are called to walk an alternative path – one of humility, justice, and peace.” I think these short readings might be prophetic for you as they are for many. Hold on, though: this isn’t sentimentality or mere inner piety. This will lead to a life-changing, challenging, beautiful life that comes “with walking in the way of grace.” A way not our own.

Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels Heidi Haverkamp (Abingdon) $14.00  This is another one we sold well last year and I want to tell about it again. Here is what I wrote a year ago at BookNotes:

Haverkamp is a writer, retreat leader and an ordained Episcopal priest. She is also a Benedictine oblate at the extraordinary, ecumenical, Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin (and author of the lovely Advent devotional, Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season.) In this Lenten guide there are six weeks of reflections, with each week offering meditations on a certain theme, related to the practices of solitude and silence.

For instance, there are five days of “Solitude and Struggle” and “Solitude and Journey” and “Solitude and Hospitality” and “Solitude and Resistance.” The last days for Holy Week are under the rubric of “Solitude and Confinement” and moves from Jesus’ imprisonment to Daniel in the Lion’s Den to John of Patmos and more. I have to admit I’ve jumped ahead to the Holy Saturday reading and the Easter Sunday one, “Mary Magdalene at the Tomb.” There’s an appendix called “Ten Ways to Be Silent.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs it. The soft, beautiful cover just makes it just perfect.

The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament Aubrey Sampson (NavPress) $15.99 We were happy to honor this with one of our “Best Books of 2018” awards and we were even happier that it sold at out Jubilee 2019 last week. Well over 3000 college students were hearing about the Lordship of Christ over all of life as they indwell the unfolding story of the Bible of Christ’s Kingdom coming — by telling the story of the goodness of creation, the distortions and pain of the fall, the redemption Christ brings, and the hope for restoration and hope we have as the story moves towards final consummation. I announced this book from the main-stage and exclaimed how moving it is, how it tells of several woman’s serious suffering, and how the Bible teaches about lament… lamenting doesn’t do anything magical, it says, but it can lead us to hope as “God sings a louder song” than suffering does, “a song of renewal and restoration.” This book tells of stress and suffering and outlines in a narrative way a Biblical theology of lament, making it useful for this Lenten season, I’d say.

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $17.00  This is not designed for Lent and it is not particularly sad or painful, but it is ideal for those who struggle with the weight of the world, but who want to embrace the goodness of creation (and all the various jobs and callings and careers and tasks that emerge from the possibilities and potentials God ordered into creation, knowing that embracing it all can be both hurtful and rewarding.) We know that there is much broken in this hurting world and most of us live within some tension of how things are and how they are meant to be; we live the “now” of God’s victory and the “not yet” of that future hope when it is fully realized. This is the longing Fleming Rutledge writes so wonderfully about in her Advent sermons and it is the constant theme for Garber. He invites us to this messy, complicated world without growing cynical or jaded.

Can we take on the pain of the world as God does and know deeply and still find some measure of proximate justice and proximate joy? This is one of my favorite books and I commend it to you during Lent, especially. Please click on that link at the bottom and order this. It is worth it, I assure you.

Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture Alister Roberts & Andrew Wilson (Crossway) $17.99 I reviewed this more extensively in our end of the year “best books of 2018” list in January (or was in February?) I noted that I really appreciated the way it picks up the “echoes of Exodus” and liberation and freedom that keep appearing throughout Scripture. The authors are conservative, Reformed folks but this should appeal to anyone who likes astute Bible study and the big picture of the healing of the cosmos that is the unfolding drama of the whole Bible. Some of their examples of “exodus” themes are pretty obvious and others are creative and generative. I applaud these authors and commend these 20-some chapters, short and potent. It isn’t arranged as a daily devotional, let alone a Lenten one, but if you are like many, you may not need a handy 40 day devo anyway. Pick this up and spend time pondering this pivotal aspect of Scriptural truth.

 

 

 

Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us Simone Weil (Plough Publishing) $8.00            The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations Oscar Romero (Plough) $8.00                                                                The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus Dorothy Day (Plough) $8.00   Do you know Plough Publishing? They are a classy small press emerging from the Bruderhof communities, radical anabaptists who have several intentional communities throughout North America. They publish very good stuff and they do a nice job with quality paper and lovely production. These are the first three in a series they are developing called “Plough Spiritual Guides” and affectionally known as “Backpack Classics.”

The Simone Weil one is quite new and, as you might realize, each of these are meditations offered by those who suffered much in their service of Christ’s Kingdom and the good of the world. These are good for Lent, although not designed as such. Kudos to Plough Publishing for offering these gifts to the reading public.

Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) $16.99  What a great new paperback this is. (And there is a DVD curriculum which I’ll mention below.) As you maybe know, Dr. Levine is an internationally respected Jewish scholar whose speciality is the New Testament. She teaches Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and is an upbeat, feisty speaker. She does extraordinary scholarship about first century Judaism and the early Jesus movement. (An earlier book was called The Misunderstood Jew and, more recently, she did Stories Jesus Told: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, not to mention the Oxford University Press release, The Jewish Annotated New Testament.) As an Episcopalian prof from Seminary of the South writes, “Grounded in the rich and compelling scholarship we have come to expect from her, AmyJill Levin’s Entering the Passion of Jesus will surprise many and inform all who walk through Holy Week with her.”

This really emphasizes the risks Jesus took to love as he did which, asking us, too, what role we might place as we take risks to bear witness to and join with God’s work in the world. I maintain that this only isn’t adequate and not the only way to view the passion, but it is part of any faithful interpretation and for that, we have this moving study. Highly recommended.

The Crucified Is My Love: Morning and Evening Devotions for the Holy Season of Lent Johann Ernst von Holst (Plough Publishing) $18.00 This came out last year from Plough and should have been more widely celebrated, although the Bruderhof folks are a quiet bunch. Still, the recent publication of this is remarkable; von Holst was a Lutheran pastor in Riga, Latvia (1828 – 1898) and these stirring readings for Lent have been handed down for generations. They are based on the gospel accounts and are exceptional.

 

 

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing) $24.00 This is a perennial title from Plough and matches nice their popular Advent collection, Watch for the Light

 Here is what I wrote a while back at BookNotes:

This handsome hardback has brief readings from some of the world’s leading literary and spiritual writers, offering just enough meaty and aesthetically-rich writing to please and challenge anyone who wants to dip in to a more mature sourcebook. Bread and Wine (like its companion Advent volume, Watch for the Light) draws wonder-full excerpts from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Philip Yancey, Jane Kenyon; from Frederick Buechner, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, Watchman Nee and Dorthy Sayers. How many books have such thoughtful excerpts of Tolstoy and Updike and Christina Rossetti, Fleming Rutledge, Martin Luther and Barbara Brown Taylor, Oswald Chambers and Alister McGrath. As you can see, this is really diverse, delightful, thoughtful; a publishing triumph pulling together such writers and thinkers, poets, mystics, evangelists. With each several-page excerpt linked to a brief Biblical text,  Bread and Wine is a wonderful devotional that you will use for a lifetime.

The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK/IVP) $15.00  This was our biggest selling Lent book last year when it was released (from the UK) and the companion, The Art of Advent was our biggest selling Advent resource last December. It is a small, square-sized paperback made nicely with glossy paper and excellent art reproductions gracing every other page. On the facing pages the esteemed Carmelite sister and art historian, Sister Wendy, offers remarkable insight that is at once a blend of interesting art facts and art historical exploration and inspiring faith-shaping wisdom. There are over forty paintings, some quite famous and others lesser known, each explaining succinctly and with a natural, winsome invitation to use them prayerfully. This is so nice I’d recommend getting a few – it’s a wonderful book to share with the unsuspecting, one who might not ordinarily read a Christian book or who might not take up a more conventional Bible study. The book is wonderfully designed, too, with full color pages and good graphic lay out. Highly recommended and in stock now.

Lent and Easter Wisdom from Henri J. M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers Together with Nouwen’s Own Words edited by Judy Bauer (Liguori Publications) $11.99 This publisher has done other small season devotionals (Advent and Lent) based on the writings of great saints and mystics. We’ve appreciated their ones on Chesterton, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Saint Benedict, Francis & Clare, and more. As with all of these, Lent and Easter Wisdom from Henri Nouwen offers Scripture and prayers and excerpts of his own writing and prayers. It includes a daily practice to deepen one’s spirituality and nicely goes through the second Sunday of Easter.

 

Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark Walter Wangerin (Zondervan) $14.99 We’ve suggested this over and over since it released in the early 1990s. I have a few good friends who have said this is their all time favorite Lenten devotional.

We like hand-sized, compact hardbacks and so appreciate the fine, fine writing in this powerful little book. I suppose you know Wangerin who has garnered award after award for his fantasy novels, his memoirs, his Biblical work, his children’s books, his book about being a young writer (Beate Not the Poore Desk published by our friends at Rabbit Room) and more. As a poet and preacher and a former inner city pastor, this passionate Lutheran leader reminds us through Scripture and storytelling that “we crucify and we are crucified, are condemned and redeemed.”  Eugene Peterson, who said Wangerin is one of the “master storytellers of our generation” insists that Walt is “at his best, writing on and around the Master Story.” This isn’t new and we’ve described it other years here in BookNotes, but wanted to remind you of it again.

Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday Fleming Rutlege (Eerdmans) $18.00 I suppose this might be the most significant new release this year and it already has become a good seller for us. The cover is brilliant, the compact shaped appealing, and the writing suburb. That she did these sermons all in a three hour service a year ago is remarkable and this book is a prefect follow up to her more heady works (such as the must-read The Undoing of Death and her major work on the cross, The Crucifixion, both published in paperback by Eerdmans.)

There’s a bit of a buzz about this new volume for which we rejoice; I suspect we might even sell out as the end of Lent approaches so you might be wise to order it now. You may know that Dr. Rutledge did a similar book of meditations in 2004 (that is still in print, now in a small sized paperback) called The Seven Last Words from the Cross (Eerdmans; $13.00) which offers a profound devotional experience. We highly recommend them both.

The Beauty of the Cross: Reflections for Lent from Isaiah 52 and 53 Tim Chester (The Good Book Company) $12.99  Tim Chester is a very popular (and prolific) author who is a pastor and evangelical theologian from the UK. He writes wonderfully assessable, gospel-centered books, often devotional in nature (although he has written in other genres including some more rigorous volumes.) He has a few collections of Advent readings that we loved and last year did the Lenten devotion called The Glory of the Cross: Reflections for Lent from The Gospel of John (The Good Book Company; $12.99.)

This new one, The Beauty of the Cross, is mature and thoughtful and and reveals an important reminder of Christ’s suffering.

Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2017 Justin Welby (Bloomsbury) $13.95  This was the big Lent book for the Church of England last year and while you may have heard about it, I bet you haven’t seen it around much or reviewed stateside. The Archbishop of Canterbury (formerly Rowan Williams, now Justin Welby) always picks a book for the Church to read during the season of Lent. The following year, then, it is usually released in the States. This is the first time (I think) that the Archbishop actually wrote the annual Lent book.

Certainly in the Bible and certainly in our time, mammon is one of the chief idols, a good deformed that captures our hearts and damages our society. This is important. Looks powerful, eh?

The Passion of the King of Glory Russ Ramsey (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 This book is the second in a trilogy and all three deserve much, much more than I can say here, now. Let me entice you by saying that Ramsey is a creative, colorful, passionate writer. I raved about his near-death memoir — one of the best! — called Struck: Oner Christians Reflections on Encountering Death and I’d read anything else he writes. He is a Reformed pastor, visionary, missional, caring about the gospel and caring about the world. In this set of 40 reflections Ramsey offers retellings of the gospel narratives. It captures the lively and passionate feel of the Bible stories so much so that writer Trillia Newbell says “you’ll wonder if he sat down and spoke with all the people involved in the story.”

How a creative writer “throw opens the curtains” (as Scotty Smith puts it) and invites us into the story, feeling it is a mystery, but he has the gift. These forty short chapters, arranged in five big sections, recounts key episodes and offers a taste of what it must have been like to be there with Jesus irsthand.

The first volume in this set, by the way, is called Advent of the Lamb of God and the third is The Mission of the Body of Christ. Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Chruch in Nashville.

 

 

Prayer: Forty Days of Practice Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This is not a Lenten book as such but this would make a great companion for anyone wanting to focus on their inner life for a season. We’ve promoted the previous self published edition and this is one of those rare instances when a big time publisher picks up a volume that was self published. Justin is a great writer, an artist and coach of creatives, and public speaker while Scott is himself deeply read and yet primarily a visual artist. Together they’ve created a book that is full of prompts and ideas and short reflections to help you ponder and pray, all arranged around a set of very contemporary graphic-like art pieces done by Scott the Painter. This invitation to deeper intimacy with God has gotten nothing short of rave reviews by all kinds of folks, from hip hop artists Propaganda (who highlights how the marriage of words and image work) to seminary president Mark Labberton to writer and missional adventure Sarah Thebarge (who calls it “a gift of a book) to Shane Claiborne and many others.

Listen to Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren:

In my home we have a special shelf where we keep sacred things of beauty. On the shelf are a few icons, seashells, the Book of Common Prayer, and this book, Prayer. Each person in my family–from children to adults–sits in quiet wonder as they flip these pages. This meditative and practical book brings together prayer, practices, and visual art to provide a feast for the soul. McRoberts and Erickson have created something beautiful, thoughtful, and mesmerizing.

Or this from activist and author Dominique DuBois Gilliard, author of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores:

Prayer empowers us to walk by faith and not by sight. In a world where death, oppression, and violence all too often feel like the final words, we’re prone to forget that prayer truly changes things. Prayer begets revelation, enabling us to see, name, and confess the brokenness within us and our world. Prayer then leads to repentance, which reorients our posture toward God and neighbor. This book prophetically uses art to inspire us to remember God’s faithfulness amid the darkness. It also structures prayer in ways that draw us simultaneously inward and outward, producing a more faithful witness.

LENT FOR CHILDREN

Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter Laura Alary, Illustrated by Ann Boyajian (Paraclete Press) $15.99  Wow, what a wonderful children’s picture book, delightfully illustrated and nicely told. It is an invitation for children to wonder about the Lenten story, helping children to experience Lent with all their senses. They are taught to see it as a special time for creating a “welcoming space for God.”  As it says on the back, “Simple activities like cleaning a room, making bread and soup, and inviting a neighbor for supper become acts of justice and kindness, part of a life following Christ.”

The story unfolds reminding the child of the things “we” do — meaning the church of which she is a part.  Maybe your church isn’t “dressed in purple” and maybe you don’t have a Maundy Thursday service (but I sure hope you do!) Most of us don’t go to a lake for a sunrise service as the parish in this story does, but kids can realize that these are the kinds of things some churches do. Maybe it will inspire them to make suggestions of Lenten practices for your church or family!  I think it is a fine book for almost any kind of Christian.

As our friend Gary Neal Hansen (author of Kneeling with the Giants) writes about Making Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter:

The book reveals what is usually hidden: what we knew as penitential is actually life-giving and faith-building. After reading the book to my kids, my five year old daughter exclaimed “I can’t wait for Lent! I just can’t wait!”

Holy Week: An Emotions Primer board book Danielle Hitchen, illustrated by Jessica Blanchard (Harvest House) $12.99  This has already become one of our best sellers this season and a favorite among our staff. This simple board book does some things that no other book does (as far as we know.) It shows various episodes or characters of holy week and links each to a particular emotion. How interesting! This is part of an excellent series (called “Baby Believers”) which are done in colorful styles, offering a helpful way into many Biblical themes. (One is called From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer and one is called Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer and another is Let There Be Light: An Opposites Primer.) These aren’t goofy and they aren’t shallow, even though they are designed for little ones and little hands. Again, this holy week one uses Scripture to teach about emotions. Highly recommended.

Teach Us To Pray: Scripture Centered Family Worship Through the Year Lora A. Copley & Elizabeth Vander Haagen (Calvin College Press) $29.99  We know this is both pricey and hefty. At almost two inches thick and a big square size (almost 9 x 9 inches) with 864 pages, it is impressive. More impressive is the remarkable two-page spread for each day, clearly offering a pattern of daily devotion under the categories (highlighted by symbolic icons) of Preparing-Inviting-Stilling-Singing-Bible Reading-Dwelling-Praying-Blessing. Teach Us To Pray has some experimental feel, a bit of a liturgical feel, and is wisely construed for families with children wanting to dwell within the ancient church calendar. (There is a very nice, useful several page introduction to all this and a lovely little chart for those needing some quick guidance.) The authors are both ordained CRC pastors and were supported in this project by the Calvin Institute on Christian Worship.

A FEW GOOD DVD CURRICULUM CHOICES

DVD or book Adam Hamilton (Abingdon) DVD = $39.99; hardback book = $19.99; Leader’s Guide = $12.99  This is the brand new book and DVD by the very popular Bible teacher Adam Hamilton. He has several well-loved DVD series including some previously released for Advent and Lent. I suspect that this study of the life of Peter was first used as a Lenten series at his big United Methodist church although much of this was filmed in the Holy Land making it really interesting to watch. The chapters of the hardback book are short and readable although one doesn’t need to have the book to use the DVD curriculum. (There is a youth study guide, too, by the way.) Either way, using the book or using the DVD (or both) here is the content:

Additional components for a six-week adult study include a comprehensive Leader Guide and a DVD featuring author and pastor Adam Hamilton teaching on site in Israel and Italy.

  1. The Call of the Fisherman
  2. Walking with Jesus in the Storm
  3. Bedrock or Stumbling Block?
  4. “I Will Not Deny You”
  5. From Cowardice to Courage
  6. The Rest of the Story

DVD or book  Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) paperback book= $16.99;  DVD= $39.99;  Leader’s Guide for DVD = $12.99

I hope you noticed I mentioned this as a stand alone book, above. We recommend it, even though it’s a rather audacious project: a non-Christian scholar of Jesus reminding those who are followers of Christ what that maybe entails, based on interpretations of the first century cultural context. This is fascinating stuff and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a fabulous communicator, so watching the DVD (alone, or, better, with a group) would be a stimulating experience.

Here is what the publisher says to explain it all:

Jesus’ final days were full of risk. Every move he made was filled with anticipation, danger, and the potential for great loss or great reward.

Jesus risked his reputation when he entered Jerusalem in a victory parade. He risked his life when he dared to teach in the Temple. His followers risked everything when they left behind their homes, or anointed him with costly perfume. We take risks as we read and re-read these stories, finding new meanings and new challenges.

In Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week, author, professor, and biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine explores the biblical texts surrounding the Passion story. She shows us how the text raises ethical and spiritual questions for the reader, and how we all face risk in our Christian experience.

Entering the Passion of Jesus provides a rich and challenging learning experience for small groups and individual readers alike. The book is part of a larger six-week study that is perfect for Lent and includes a DVD, and a comprehensive Leader Guide.

The book’s six chapters include:

  1. Jerusalem: Risking Reputation
  2. The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger
  3. Teachings: Risking Challenge
  4. The First Dinner: Risking Rejection
  5. The Last Supper: Risking the Loss of Friends
  6. Gethsemane: Risking Temptation
DVD or book Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus John Ortberg (Zondervan) paperback book = $16.99 DVD and Leader’s Guide package = $36.99  This isn’t exactly Lenten, but this is a season to consider the impact of Jesus, so wanted to list it. Like the ones above, there’s a few options for this study, too. First, there is a regular book that each can read and talk about. It’s great — inspiring and impressive, starting with how Jesus’s earliest followers changed the world in so many ways. Why? Because of what he taught and who he was. So the question looms large: who was He, if he inspired all this world-changing stuff? It’s a great, great book for seekers or followers of Jesus.
The DVD is very cool, creatively filmed, upbeat and vital so you can use it without reading the book. Participants can just watch the presentations and then discuss them with the well done Leader’s Guide. The Leader’s Guide is for the DVD, not the book.

 

The book is longer, but the DVD is just five sessions (but there’s plenty to talk about so you could stretch it out, easily into more weeks if you are planning an adult class or small group for Lent.) It ends, the last session, with the death and resurrection of Christ so it is arranged very well for use during the time leading up to Easter.

Sessions include:

    1. The Man Who Won’t Go Away
    2. A Revolution of Humanity
    3. The Power of Forgiveness
    4. Why It’s a Small World After All
    5. Three Days That Changed the World

A FEW FINAL IDEAS

The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent Aaron Damiani (Moody) $12.99  I started with a passing reference to “giving something up for Lent.” Here is a book that we’re suggested before for those who are not familiar with (or have some suspicious about) that practice. Written by a conservative evangelical Protestant, it is handsome and nicely done, inviting folks to this classic spiritual practice.

As I’ve said at BookNotes before, I liked this a lot and even appreciate the handsome design (with touches of purple ink.) Nice job, Moody Press.

 

 

40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. a Different Kind of Fast. Dr. Alicia Britt Chole (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 This has been a popular one for us, a very interesting and easy read, but yet challenging. It is useful for any time, but maybe is designed for Lent — especially for those that aren’t terribly connected to a liturgical tradition and just want to enter a 40-day experiment. It calls us away from trivial sorts of symbolic gestures and invites us to give up dangerous stuff. And, significantly, it invites us to do so in community, as small groups or families or maybe whole congregations. Wow — this is worth considering!

Here is how the publisher describes it:

“What are you giving up for Lent?” we are asked. Our minds begin to whirl: Chocolate? Designer coffee? Social media? Forty days later, some feel disappointed in their efforts (it was a limited-time blend), some feel surprised by their success (didn’t even miss it), but perhaps precious few feel spiritually renewed.

Can such fasts alone truly prepare us to celebrate Easter? Or any other chosen time of reflection during the year?

Or could it be that before we can be duly awed by resurrection, we need to daily honor crucifixion?

40 Days of Decrease emphasizes a different type of fast. What if you or your church fasted comparison? What if your family fasted accumulation? What if your office fasted gossip?

40 Days of Decrease guides readers through a study of Jesus’ uncommon and uncomfortable call to abandon the world’s illusions, embrace His kingdom’s reality, and journey cross-ward and beyond.

Ancient Practice Series: Fasting Scot McKnight (Thomas Nelson) $12.99  Do you know, or do you maybe recall hearing about, the “Ancient Practice” series that the late Phyllis Tickle put together almost 10 years ago, now. She found authors who could write in ways that were deeply ecumenical, informed by ancient ways, and yet accesible and even upbeat. I loved these books — Dan Allender on sabbath, Robert Benson on fixed hour prayer, one on pilgrimage and one on eucharist and one on the church year and one on tithing. (Interestingly, these are practices shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews.) Anyway, McKnight here has given us one of the most insightful and helpful books about fasting. It’s a good time to read it, no? Very nicely done.

 

Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You  Erin M. Straza (IVP) $17.00  Well, how about you?  I know I’m often feeling overwhelmed and stressed and perhaps (truth be told, but we’re among friends, eh?) a little jealous about the success of my friends and peers. I do not feel like we live a life of ease, although I realize any complaining I do is always in the context of first world problems. We’re not starving.  Still even though I fret about my own pain and worries, I realize that there are comforts I cling to (complaining? feeling like I ought to have privilege?) and, like many middle class folks, maybe ought to take a hard look. I’m not going to lie: I haven’t read this and not sure I will. Without digging deep, my first instinct is I don’t have that much comfort to give up.

But those who have read this have said it is excellent; maybe you, like me, ought to check it out.

See how four authors I deeply respect have described it:

“In an age when the problems of the world are one keystroke away, never has it been so tempting (or so easy) to retreat into our cocoons of comfort. Never has it been more vital that we don’t. In Comfort Detox, a simultaneously profound, personal, and practical book, Erin Straza invites us to live for something more than our own comfort―to discover the truer peace that comes from knowing the divine Comforter and extending his comfort to those in need.” Hannah Anderson, author of Humble Roots and Made for More

“Erin skillfully captures the nature of our addiction to comfort and its power and ubiquity in modern American life. Weaving personal narratives, Scripture, and practical advice, Straza shows how we can leave behind a worldly, desiccated vision of comfort for the true comfort of Christ.” Alan Noble, author of Disruptive Witness

“Our obsessive pursuit of comfort may be the most acute and least diagnosed malady of North American Christianity. In Comfort Detox, Erin Straza helps readers imagine something more glorious―if also riskier―than a life insulated from interruption, inconvenience, and even anguish. I am grateful for her invitation to keep company with Jesus―and keep watch with a sorrowing world.” Jen Pollock Michel, author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place

Comfort Detox exposes the way our everyday complacencies keep us from seeing and responding to the needs of those both near and far. With compassion and conviction, Erin Straza shows us how we can and why we must break the habits that serve self rather than others.” Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked and Fierce Convictions and On Reading Well

Ms. Straza herself writes:

For too long I have lived life on comfort mode, making choices for life engagement based on safety, ease, and convenience. It has left me very little wiggle room, just a small parcel of real estate upon which to live, move, and have my being. It’s not quite the abundant life Jesus was offering.

The publisher explains it like this:

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds, bodies, and souls often seek out what’s comfortable. Erin Straza has gone on a journey of self-discovery, awakening to her own inherent drive for a comfort that cannot truly fulfill or satisfy. She depicts her struggles with vulnerability and honesty, and shares stories of other women who are on this same path. Straza also provides practical insights and exercises to help you find freedom from the lure of the comfortable. This detox program will allow you to recognize pseudo versions of comfort and replace them with a conviction to embrace God’s true comfort. Discover the secret to countering the comfort addiction and become available as God’s agent of comfort to serve a world that longs for his justice and mercy.

Sounds like this time of Lenten reflection towards the cross might be a time to dig into this. Anybody in?

City of God: Faith in the Streets Sara Miles (Jericho Books) $16.00  We love the extraordinary writing and remarkable storytelling of colorful Episcopalian convert and author and activist Sara Miles. We recommend her stunning story of her own unlikely conversion in Take This Bread and the exceptionally moving, feisty, raw book about urban ministry called Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, and Raising the Dead. City of God (now out in paperback) is her third since her coming to faith. What a writer! We commend City of God for this time of year, though, because it is a further rumination on her life among the under-resourced in the Bay area of San Francisco, working out of the famously eccentric St. Gregory’s, framed by her experiences on Ash Wednesday, make this a memoir well suited as a Lenten reflection. In fact, most of it is about her ministry of offering ashes out on the streets. Wow.

Here is just a little of what I wrote in a longer review three years ago when it first came out and I first spent time with it:

…. I want to tell you about one of the most interesting books I’ve read in quite a while and it is perfect to read here as we approach Lent; as you’ll see it is a memoir mostly about experiencing Ash Wednesday. It arrived into the shop a few weeks ago, but, because I know this writer is thoughtful and such a very good wordsmith (and would be writing about some fairly intense stuff that I would want to consider carefully) I wanted to hold it until I had time to savor, to appreciate, to ponder, and to grapple with it.

Today I feel a little like Jacob after that long night of struggle, a bit banged-up myself, but blessed for the effort. I read the new book City of God: Faith in the Streets by a truly fascinating person and gifted, remarkable writer, self-confessed Episcopalian “church nerd” Sara Miles. I have read her earlier books and spent a few days at an event with her a year ago. I respect her a lot, as a writer and as a follower of Christ.

The City of God: Faith in the Streets is mostly about celebrating in high church fashion the service of putting ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent.) And doing it out on the streets, for one and all.

City of God is an amazing book for several reasons. Firstly, it chronicles one day in Mile’s life, a busy Ash Wednesday, and three Ash Wednesday services in which she was involved that day.

Coloring Lent: An Adult Coloring Book for the Journey to Resurrection Christopher D. Rodkey & Jesse & Natalie Turri (Chalice Press) $12.99  Lastly, I hope you have seen the BookNotes posts we have done about our friend and neighbor, UCC pastor and postmodern theologian, Chris Rodkey, and his three exceptional adult coloring books. Along with some Pennsylvania artist friends, he did an unusually interesting Lenten coloring book for adults that follows the lectionary, called Coloring Lent. Trust me — there is nothing like it. See our earlier review, which is pretty interesting, actually, HERE.

For what it’s worth, Chris and his artist friends did another one called Coloring Advent and also a new one — which you really should check out — called Coloring Women of the Bible (Chalice Press; $14.99.) As I’ve suggested in our reviews of the other two, there is more meat here than meets the eye and the captions and art (kudos to Natalie Turri ) and the footnotes all make for a deeply provocative, learning experience as one takes time to attend to this approach to the Biblical texts.

 

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BEST BOOKS OF 2018 (part two) — a fabulous, feisty, fun, frolic through a favored few findings (including fiction) ON SALE

Thanks to all who expressed appreciation for last week’s big Best of… list. We are truly grateful for your encouragement. Thanks even more to those who sent us orders. You all keep us going. (Although let’s not fool ourselves; this business can’t survive on accolades alone.) So, fight the social trends and resist the cultural tendencies: read, read, read! Buy books and give them away. Stack them around. Spend less on other stuff and invest in interesting books. Be curious. (Use your library!) As Karen Swallow Prior says, reveling in an older usage, read promiscuously. Move beyond the predictability of safe Christian book lists or popular best-seller fare. Be surprised; take risks; dare greatly in your book buying. Have fun subverting the spiffy ease of digital everything. Don’t you want to be the kind of person that does that, that kind of reader, that kind of book buyer?

We think we can help.

Here are some more titles we really enjoyed this Year of our Lord that deserve special acclaim. Add this to our previous list of favorites for 2018.

We suspect some of these titles we are about to celebrate are not for everyone, but after last week’s honoring of truly significant works, we wanted to highlight more. Some of these are doubtlessly deserving of highly significant honors, others we were itching to name because one of us was wowed by reading them or we got a kick out of telling folks about them. These are some that we have to name as we look back in our year in review. Congrats to one and all.

BEST BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS, READING, and WRITING

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press) $19.99 I certainly hope you didn’t miss the hullabaloo about this wonderful work this fall. We celebrated it because (a) we love Karen and her other work, such as Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and her biography called Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist and (b) because this book is about the value and virtues of reading classic and higher quality literature, and (b) because our good friend from Square Halo Books and World’s End Images, Ned Bustard, did artwork for each chapter. That this book got so much publicity on-line, in newspapers and podcasts and (yes!) here at the shop where we had a wonderful evening hosting her speaking about her passion for books and reading from On Reading Well, is just further indication that this is an important work that resonated with many. Blurbs on the back are from diverse authors such as Jonathan Merritt (who says “her book on books is her best yet… a love letter to literature.), Tish Harrison Warren (who says it is “an exploration of the formative power of stories and an excavation of the life well lived.”), and Russell Moore who says On Reading Well is for those who may at first think reading about reading is for them. He continues, “A significant and powerful work that will refocus discussion on the meaning of reading for spiritual formation.”

I enjoyed writing a long review of it at BookNotes and concur with Tish Warren, who writes,

This story-saturated engagement with the virtues is pragmatic enough to touch the nitty-gritty of our lives and imaginative enough to inspire.

We are not the only ones to determine to honor and celebrate Karen Swallow Prior and her book On Reading Well as one of the best books of 2018. It was happily on a number of critics and periodicals end of the year lists and has garnered a number of impressive awards. Now is gets a coveted — haha — Hearts & Minds Best Book award as well.  Cheers!

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life Anne Bogel (Baker Books) $14.99 Oh my, we wish we could just give these out to anyone and everyone — it is a book lover’s joy to see a handsome little book offering all kinds of insights about the lifestyle of being a serious reader. Yet, even though it (not unlike Prior, but perhaps with a bit more whimsy) understands and helps explains the significance and implications of the reading life, it also holds up the joy and quirky (charming and sometimes odd) habits that those of us who love books exhibit.

Anne Bogel, as we explained in our review earlier, is the creator of the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcey and the podcast What Should I Read Next. I suppose this may be aimed at female readers, mostly, but I loved it. Beth and I (and our staff) so appreciate a little volume that declares to the world what we are about and is unashamed to admit that many of have this hobby that is more than a hobby but nearly a beautiful obsession. Anybody who loves reading and cares about their bookish habits will enjoy this and I know many have purchased it as a little gift for their book-loving friends. More importantly, perhaps, it might introduce the charms and benefits of reading to those yet to be seduced. Let us hope this good guide makes it way to many.

Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life Sarah Clarkson (Tyndale Momentum) $15.99  There is no doubt this is one of my favorite books of 2018 and one we will continue to tell others about for a long time to come. In my too-brief review last fall I considered, but did not, use a Goldilocks analogue, but I shall now. If Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well is tooo tough and long and Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather Be Reading is tooo short and sweet, well, Book Girl is “just right!”  Indeed, Clarkson is as smart and charming and fun and practical and wise (and well-read!) as both of the above mentioned authors and their books combined. I adored this very, very thoughtful reminder of what books can do for us, the profound ways they shape our worldview, the way they can create empathy and help us navigate our world. It is a wonder no one has written a book quite like this (although, I must say, it is stuff I’ve said often in workshops and lectures.)

Not only did Book Girl make a convincing case about the value of the reading life and explain how books nurture both the life of the mind and the calibre of the heart, it also is loaded with book lists, recommended readings, annotated inventories of titles for this or that topic. Highly recommended.

Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William edited by Jack R. Baker & Jeffrey Bilbro (Front Porch Republic Books) $27.00 There are so many books that fall into the “literary criticism” and “books about books” category and we appreciate many. For instance, who wouldn’t find intriguing a 2018 book called Haunted by Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith (by Richard Harris; SPCK; $27.00) or the fabulous new book from Plough Publishing called The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers (compiled by Carole Vanderhoof; $18.00.) One of the good ones that we actually sold a handful of was by the great Sarah Arthur called A Light So Lovely:The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle; Zondervan; $19.99.) There are so many books like this and we are glad.

But Baker & Bilbro have given us something truly remarkable and I am thrilled to tell you about it. Telling the Stories Right, as the subtitle suggests, is a collection of essays about the fictional world Wendell Berry has created, the legendary Port William of Kentucky.  Berry is known as an essayist and agrarian reformer. He is a farmer, a poet, an environmental activist, and is well known for essays about rural life, farmer — the good and the bad — and about being attentive to place, to land, to creation. For instance, 2017 saw a fabulous hardback collection of recent agrarian essays (The Art of Loading Brush) but 2018 saw the release of the first volume of the handsome Library of America ‘s (what will be) complete collection of Berry’s fiction, in (fictional) chronological order. In this volume, all of his novels and short stories are placed in the proper order (not when they were written, but when the story takes place) starting somewhat after the Civil War. The prestigious Library of America will do a second volume two collected fictional works maybe next year…

This Front Porch Republic book by Baker & Bilbro offers a look at many facets of Berry’s fiction, his rendering of the small Kentucky town and it’s fields and characters and ethos. There are twelve chapters here and as it says on the back, they “approach Berry’s fiction from a variety of perspectives — literary studies, journalism, theology, history, songwriting — to shed light on its remarkable ability to make a good life imaginable and compelling. This volume is not the first to study his fiction but it is the best, insisting that “any consideration of Berry’s work bust being with his stories.”

There are wonderful writers here, doing very interesting things. Kiara Jorgenson from St. Olaf College writes about affection and the sense of vocation in the stories. Eric Miller, a historian who teaches at Geneva College (and who lived for a spell in York, PA, near us) studies letters Wendell Berry received, about the novels, looking for clues to how readers respond to the stories. Bilbro’s own chapter is called “Andy Catlett’s Missing Hand: Making Do as Wounded Members.” Jake Meador of the Davenant Institute writes on Jayber Crow; singer-songwriter and founder of Rabbit Room Andrew Peterson has a lovely, short chapter paying tribute. A few other acquaintances are here: Michael Stevens (who wrote the first book that explored Berry from a Christian viewpoint, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life) has a brilliant chapter about marginal characters (and hedgerows.) Doug Sikkema writes for Comment and has a piece about the “narrative tradition” of Berry’s fiction, comparing him to Stegner, Stanford, and the Class of ’58. Yes, the women and men who offered chapters here know Berry’s work well and obviously enjoy writing about this fictional place that “makes goodness compelling.”

The next best thing to reading Berry is to read those who write about Berry’s writing. We should be extremely grateful that we now have this collection of wise investigations of Berry’s novels and short stories. These essays do what they were meant to do which is nothing less than celebrate Berry’s fertile imagination.” –Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University

“”When I encounter readers, who share Wendell Berry’s concerns but are unfamiliar with his work, I urge them to begin with his fiction. One finds there, more fully arrayed than in his essays or poetry, the web of relationships connecting persons, place, and community. The weaving of that web, on the page and in the world, is the subject of the dozen studies in this book, a worthy guide to the storytelling art of an essential author.”   –Scott Sanders, author of Earth Works

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle Sarah Arthur (Zondervan) $19.99 I do not know if you will adore this book or not. If you like L’Engle you will be glad to learn of her impact and influence on others. You may know about some of her struggles, personal and otherwise (including the loud criticisms she got from some quarters. It seems she was to open-minded and literary for some conservative religious adherents and yet too Christian for some mainstream critics. Yep.) From Phil Yancey to Luci Shaw, she inspired and befriended many thoughtful Christian writers, and her soul friends are here. Fiction writers like Jeffrey Overstreet are interviewed as are other of L’Engle’s writing colleagues.

Her faith was profound and she had what might be called a sacramental view of reality. This book explores her view of her craft as a writer, her role as a thinker, cites her memoirs and essays and Bible studies as well as the Wrinkle in Time works.  It’s thoughtful, but not heavy, but not a simple biography. It really is does explore L’Engle’s “spiritual legacy.” I liked the little “French fold” covers that make it extra nicer, not to mention a foreword by Charlotte Jones Voiklis. And you thought you like Meg Murray and Calvin O’Keefe!  Thanks to Sarah Arthur for offering this lovely book.

BOOKS OF FAITH FORMATION (BUT NOT TYPICAL DEVOTIONAL/CHRISTIAN LIVING WRITING)

Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $21.99  Even if I hadn’t cracked the cover of this compact, hand-sized hardback I’d have nominated for a “best cover” award, I think. I love Marilyn McEntyre, having read several of her volumes of poetry, devotion, Advent, books about grief, about dying, even one about St. Patrick. I’ve chatted with here and served on a panel once and she remains a literary hero. One of my favorite books in the last decade has become a chestnut for me, one I take everywhere and often press into people’s hands — it is called Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. These were lectures (The Stone Lectures at Princeton, actually) riffing on the theme of words as natural resources and offering “stewardship strategies” to steward them well lest they turn toxic and pollute our common life. More recently she did a lovely and thoughtful devotional playing with words, called Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice. And later this year, Eerdmans will release When Poets Pray.

Make a List is the one we are honoring now, though; at first blush it seems less overly spiritual than most of her others. And yet, this human practice — list making — can be stewarded well, as well, and can become a spiritual discipline. In her insightful hands, a book about list-making becomes a mature and generative work. Who knew?

We could give this an award, if we were being goofy, about Make a List being one of the hardest books to know where to shelf here in the shop. Is it a self-help book? A time management tool? A resource for the absentminded, helping one become productive in a “getting things done” section of the store? Or is it, as the subtitle audaciously says, a “practice” that can “open our hearts”? Maybe we should put it under spiritual formation? As Jamie Smith says, ‘the things we do, do things to us” so, surely, this is a book about formation.

The author is treasured by many. Authors and artists  and theologians such as Shauna Niequist and Michael Card and Samuel Wells all have accolades on the back of the book. Lauren Winner’s endorsement is on the front. Any new book of McEntyre’s, we think, is deserving of a very big shout out. I think I’ll make a list of all the things I like about this.  Number one is that it is just so nicely written, so charming and artful and good. Cheers.

Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People  Bob Goff (Nelson) $16.99 This is, obviously, one of the notable books of 2018. Bob is a funny, funny, guy, but behind the exuberance and whimsy and connecting everybody and encouraging others is a sly, whimsical, but sly strategy. Bob is inviting people to live a better story, a story connected to the big themes of the Kingdom of God, the joys (and sacrifices) of following Jesus. He knows the gospels and he has spent much of his life serving God, helping others, building a famously creative and adventurous family — not to mention an avocation of fighting sexual trafficking, starting orphanages in war zones, schools in rural Africa, and coming alongside folks as diverse as hipster cum business consultant Donald Miller to thoughtful global activist and history writer Jay Milbrandt or fun and fiery spiritual renewal leader Bianca Juarez Olthoff. He gets around and knows folks all over — just read the wonderful forward to, for instance, the brand new Salvaged: Leadership Lessons Pulled from the Junkyard by his childhood friend, Roy Goble or learn how he continues to serve folks in Somalia or Uganda. What his Dream Big video promos and pick up the wholesome, energetic, encouragement.

Anyway, like his much-loved Love Does this 2018 release is inspiring, funny, dramatic, well-told, audacious, and yet, oddly, down to Earth. Some have told us they think some of the stories are more powerful than Love Does. I think that may be the case….I couldn’t put it down, but what do you expect.

We carry the DVD, too.  Top notch, sure to please almost any teen or adult ed class or small group. Not terribly intense doctrinal study, but if you, like Bob, want to “love everyone, always” but being involved in “Bible doings” not just “Bible studies”, he’s your man.

If you want to “Dream Big” as he puts it, he’s really your man.

Here is how the publisher describes Everybody Always:

Driven by Bob’s trademark storytelling, Everybody, Always reveals the lessons Bob learned–often the hard way–about what it means to love without inhibition, insecurity, or restriction. From finding the right friends to discovering the upside of failure, Everybody, Always points the way to embodying love by doing the unexpected, the intimidating, the seemingly impossible. Whether losing his shoes while skydiving solo or befriending a Ugandan witch doctor, Bob steps into life with a no-limits embrace of others that is as infectious as it is extraordinarily ordinary. Everybody, Always reveals how we can do the same.

Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light Rachel Marie Stone (IVP) $16.00 This is a book that just took my breath away at times, very well written and very well thought out and very touching, tender, even. Rachel tells illuminating stories that hold her life up to the light — and allows us to join her and do the same — and see where fear and loss and pain has shaped her and how hope has broken through.  Amy Julia Becker (herself a very talented writer) says “Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last…”

Two scenes early in the book are indicative: there’s a story about her fearing water as she her dad helps her learn to swim. It is so well told and so realistic that I felt it. More extraordinary, perhaps, was a riveting story about a risky procedure in a birthing clinic in a part of Africa plagued by HIV and AIDS.  Why are we sometimes brave, why do we take risks why do we sometimes not? Where is God amidst our human fears and foibles?

Rachel Marie Stone wrote a very good, basic, clear, theologically-wise book on food called Eat with Joy that is unparalleled as an accessible good study. As in that one, but more-so, Birthing Hope offers a robust, down-to-Earth creational theology, and, in this case, uses the good metaphor of birth as a way into the conversation (by way of writing about family and motherhood and physicality and anxiety and more) about birthing hope.

There are so many good endorsements of this book and since I am telling you why we name it as one of our favorite books of 2018, allow me to share what others have said, who say it more eloquently than I; do read this — they are eloquent and compelling.

“I love this book. You needn’t have given birth to love it. Maybe you don’t even have to be curious about God or life as a human being to love it―the prose is that strong and compelling that perhaps even the God-and-human-uncurious might love it. My copy is going on my read-once-a-year shelf, after Jane Smiley and before Robert Penn Warren.” (Lauren F. Winner, associate professor at Duke Divinity School, author of Wearing God)

“Ask me what this book is about and I will struggle to give you a simple answer. It is about pregnancy and birth, anxiety and despair, blood and water. It is memoir and history, poetry and theology. Ask me, though, why you should read this book, and my answer is very simple―because you are a person with a body in and through which you bear pain, fear, and failure. Read this book for its necessary wisdom. In our most desperate vulnerability, when all we can do is endure, God is there too.” (Ellen Painter Dollar, author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction)

Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last. Rachel Marie Stone’s masterful interweaving of family story, theological truth, and personal reflection on birth, life, and loss puts her in the company of writers such as Rebecca Solnit and Eula Biss. I will return to this book for wisdom, beautiful writing, and encouragement that, even in the face of loss and sorrow, it is good to give ourselves to the light.” (Amy Julia Becker, author of Small Talk and A Good and Perfect Gift and White Picket Fences.)

“We all carry fear with us in our bodies. Some of us try to escape it, some excel at denying it, and others attempt to bully it into submission. Rachel Marie Stone’s shimmering writing instead invites readers to recognize the ways in which fear shapes us (and sometimes breaks us) as human beings. Birthing Hope reveals, with honesty and grace, the ways in which holy, embodied hope can re-form our response to fear.” (Michelle Van Loon, author of Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith)

“I’ve been waiting for a book like this one for years, and no one could have written it more beautifully and wisely than Rachel Marie Stone. With the skill of a poet and the patience of a doula, Stone invites the reader to look straight into the face of fear and find in it the spark of hope. There are words and phrases from these pages that I will go on pondering for years. Theologically rich and carefully researched, Birthing Hope is a book for everyone, but as a new mother it proved life changing―the kind of book that leaves you breathless.” (Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday and A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Inspired.)

“Profound theology, deep psychic insight, and the kind of wisdom that only emerges from immersion in life and the Scriptures―Rachel Marie Stone’s book is a treasure, unforgettable, entirely compelling.” (James Howell, author of Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week)

“Why do so many movies and TV shows portray birth so laughably poorly? It’s as if we’ve all agreed the real thing―the most elemental human reality―is too raw and inelegant, too terrible and ecstatic, to be honest about. Rachel Marie Stone upends this conspiracy in this feisty, smart, theologically illuminating book. In her hands, birth is not only a sacrament of solidarity, a sign of hope amid the chaos of doubt and fright, but also a reminder that, for all our talk of immortal souls, we have and are bodies, fearfully and wonderfully so.” (Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian)

Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing Jay Stringer (NavPress) $16.99  I thought of listing this in our last list of Best Books of 2018 but I felt like that list was getting long and a bit heavy. The topic of this is heavy, but I wanted to name it in this second list of perhaps more fun and fresh writing. This is not your typical study of lust and purity or closing the window on porn use. It is about finding God’s grace to be transformed, in slow and deep ways, that allow us to find healing from unwanted sins and hard temptations, and it is brutal to read in some ways. But yet, unlike any other book of this kind, it offers a remarkable approach. As String puts in in a slogan perfect for this age of hashtags: listen to your lust.

As we explained before this book came out, we knew of Stringer and his family decades ago, and I’ve come to respect him immensely as we studious and Biblically-informed scholar of psychiatric care. His most important qualification, in my book, besides his being a kind and faithful counselor who is attentive to the Word and attentive to the world, is that he studied with Dan Allender at the Seattle School of Theology.

Dan Allender does not write too many blurbs on too many books, but he says this of Unwanted:

“Without rival, the best book on broken sexuality I have ever read.”

Another key writer on books about sex addictions is Mark Laaser. Laaser wrote the foreword, which is a huge sign that this book is making an important contribution to this field. It is certainly deserving of the accolades and good reviews it has gotten.

Another thing that makes Unwanted a book worthy of acclaim is that it draws on what seems to be the largest survey yet of those who experience some kind of unwanted sexual behavior. And from this data comes a whole lot of anguish and a pattern that emerges: putting a “tourniquet” on these problems, just saying no, getting an accountability partner or safe software doesn’t work. A deeper evaluation is needed, and that is where this book comes in, inviting us to delve more deeply into the backstories of our lives, to reflect on our desires, to re-orient our loves, to seek a reformation of character by healing the hurts that have shaped our desires. He talks about “reenactment” indicating that our current brokenness may be re-playing some deeper hurts and unfulfilled longings.

This isn’t weird or even that unusual. A biblical view of the person affirms that our past plagues us and that we all are hooked into false realities — idols the Bible calls them — and until we let go of those bad stories and wrong idols and defective imaginations, we will never be fully free. Listening to what’s going on deep inside is good advise for anyone seeking spiritual growth and is common sense counsel from any advisor. In the hands of Jay Stringer it becomes a healing balm for many and Unwanted is one of the rare books in faith-based psychology that dares to speak this kind of grace-filled, hard truth. I suspect it is too deeply spiritual for some secular or humanistic counselors and I suspect it is too raw and real for some pious Christian counselors. Read it for yourself and I am sure you will see that it is certainly one of the more interesting books in many year. Kudos.

Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith Janice Peterson (NavPress) $14.99 Decades ago, Eugene Peterson and I stood in the hallway of a local church, and then slowly strolled out to the parking lot where we chatted a bit and dreamed about him doing a poetry reading at our store. (We had heard he sent out original poems as Christmas gifts to his mailing list of fiends and family, and I knew he might want to read for us some Gerard Manley Hopkins, say.  His own poetry volume came out many years later entitled Holy Luck.) Even then, before The Message, Peterson was famous and I was reluctant to invite such a serious thinker to our small bookshop. We couldn’t pay him and we didn’t know how to proceed — we were young and idealistic but didn’t want to be rude. He was hospitable with us, friendly and willing. It never worked out, but I stopped in, later, unannounced (making a delivery, if I recall) to the apartment he and his wife, Jan, shared in Pittsburgh for a year, having left Maryland and before the call to Regent in British Columbia. Gene wasn’t there but oh did I enjoy chatting with Jan. It was a short visit and (I’m not just saying this) she was as gracious and kind and warm as can be.  Years later we crossed paths a few other times and conferences or events, and what she writes about in this book (as you’d expect from anyone in this family) is born from a life lived well. She knows how to be friendly and show God’s hospitality and has done so, long before it became somewhat of a trendy theological trope.  Becoming Gertrude is about friendship and kindness, showing grace and attending to others being a servant, “pouring into” others, as a younger generation puts it nowadays. In Janice’s younger days, it was as simple as being asked up on the porch for a glass of lemonade by a woman named Gertrude.

Can we all become Gertrude’s to others? This small sized, handsome book of story and guidance is, for all it’s aw-shucks, elderly wisdom, this teaching is more radical and counter-cultural and full of subversive, Kingdom implications than the lovely homespun cover suggests. To say no to busy-ness and be open to interruptions, to say no to “investing” and pragmatics and be present and real, to offer friendships in earnest which opens us up not only to love but to be loved, is not the way of the world, or even the way of the church, too often, these days.

Jan Peterson tells of the bonds of friendship that she has encountered and opens up her own storied life (yes, with some stuff about being married to Gene) but also examines five elements of relationships that can be appreciated and explored in the rhythms of ordinary life. She offers us insight about caring, acceptance, service, hospitality, and the ministry of encouragement. We ourselves can flourish as we offer these gifts to others.

Peterson offers a lot of good reminders about all this — we can get hurt, giving our lives to others with abandon; we should care about simple and good nutrition when sharing food with others, we have to accept our own selves as we practice accepting others.

She writes good words such as these:

When I offer hospitality, something amazing happens — so much more than I have anything to do with. An exchange takes place. Our guests bring who they are with them and enlarge our lives in their offerings. When we offer guests space, a lot of creative growth occurs.

When we announced this a BookNotes earlier in the fall we noted that it had reflection questions that would make Becoming Gertrude a very nice and useful book to read together with others. We honor it as a quiet little guide about friendships and mentoring and much, much more.

Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith byJanice Peterson released and was in her hands a few weeks before her beloved friend, husband, and partner in ministry died. I am sure Gene was very proud of her and I’m sure all were glad about this bittersweet moment when the book arrived. Now it is available in stores and for sale, and we hope it becomes well known. It might help you become Gertrude, and maybe even become Janice for others.

Keep Christianity Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different Michael Frost (NavPress) $7.99 I should have named this in our last post, but was sort of afraid it might seem weird to celebrate an inexpensive, pocket-sized paperback as a major, enduring book of the year. But, hey-o, let’s keep it a little weird and list this goofball of a book as an award winning, super-important, major release.

For starters, it is not goofy. The “Keep Austin Weird” movement is catching and, like evangelical trend-spotters before him — Tom Sine, decades ago, and Leonard Sweet, just to name two — Frost is naming a cultural moment about which the church should be aware. Give the Aussie a medal, for God’s sake, because this is very, very observant stuff that no one else has named yet. Yep, this is a ground-breaking little bit of analysis, and he’s right on.

Secondly, anybody who has been in small group Bible studies for long has surely heard some joke about being a “peculiar people” as 1 Peter 2 puts it. But, again, this holy call to distinctiveness, is serious, and although we have fun with it (yeah, some of us are more peculiar than others. hahaha) the churches accommodation to the culture around us, the bland and normal and bureaucratic and conformed, that does not invite anyone to be very much surprised by our faith, is surely deeply sad. Why are we so normal?

That is the question Frost examines and it is prophetic and profound. In a short, short, read, he invites us to “go and do likewise” by following an upside-down King of an upside-down Kingdom. Not since Brian Walsh’s utterly profound collection of messages in Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time have we heard this kind of call to “resist the allure of acceptability.”

Frost has written some of the best missional church stuff and some of the best missional discipleship stuff in recent decades. If his name is on it, buy it. But this little volume — an important follow up to his small Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People — is cheap enough and simple enough, that you could pass ’em out like pancakes. It is fun, at times funny, but mostly quite serious as he explore how the cultural creatives in our culture are themselves celebrating the unusual, the eccentric, the artful, the subversive. We need to embrace some of peculiarity if we are to reach them, but that’s only the start. We shouldn’t embrace weird to merely reach those on the cutting edge. We should embrace weird because in doing so there is something very healthy and appropriate for those called to live “non-conformed to the ways of this world.” We should trust God in ways that lead us to be adventuresome, creative, risk-taking and such.

While food trucks and hipster coffee shops and co-working places are popping up all over, malls have become ghost-towns, he reminds us. Nobody wants a McMansion any more. “Millennials have discovered kitchens,” he writes;  what can we learn from the culture’s fascination with the artisanal? Who in church history can teach us about radical reformation? What keeps us from being weird? How do relate to the world that is changing, in some ways, perhaps, for the better? What sort of habits and practices and spirituality will bear the fruit of helping us “see things weirdly”? Michael Frost’s Keep Christianity Weird is asking hugely important questions and it is short enough to allow many to join the conversation. One of my favorite books of the year!

Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences Cary Nieuwhof (Waterbrook) $19.99 Although last week’s BookNotes honored some very serious books about theology and culture and spirituality and our public lives that I think are important and good, I wanted to add this to a Best of list, but wasn’t sure where to put it. It is partially an auto-biographical telling of this pastor’s own journey into burnout, somewhat of a pop-self-help book which, while valuable, aren’t always enduring or profound. Nieuwhof is one of these high achievers, known in the mega-church world (he founded a church with one of those edgy-cool names, Connexus) a creative designer of educational programs, leadership podcasts, children’s ministry conferences, and more. Often when authors travel in those high-octane worlds I tend to tune out — they may be considered thought-leaders but I would rather slow it down and invite them to think a bit more about what they are doing. I’m distrustful of the glitz and success, although can admire the organizational energy and communication skills of guys like this.

Alas, I have to admit I was a tad smug when I heard Nieuwhof, organizer, thought-leader, big shot, had a bout of burn-out. And, then, he wrote a book about itOf course he did. 

Well, I’m here to repent of my cynicism (most of it anyway) about this and rejoice that Mr. Nieuwhof wrote this vulnerable, telling, helpful, guide to thinking about this leadership challenge. Well, seven challenges, actually, and not just those faced by leaders but by most all of us, living and agin as we do in a fast-paced world or pressures. These concerns really are for any of us who care at all about the world, who are engaged in good work, who are busy and dedicated and may not attend to our interior lives, even though we’ve heard over and over that that is important for sustained integrity. What happens when this stuff starts going off the rails, when we fall prey to distractions and distortions?

I suppose I didn’t see it coming, either, and still am not sure if my periodic melancholy and anxiety is stress or depression or just lack of sleep. I’ve struggled with this hard stuff most of my adult life — workaholism, we used to call it, being addicted to one’s own adrenaline. Is it ego? Idolatry? Heath issues? Or do serious times demand serious sacrifices?  I don’t know, but I was glad to read this book, which I liked much more than I expected, as Neuwhof ruminate on his own being bogged down by distractions. It was reassuring and helpful as he offers guidance about seeing what might be coming around the bend.

There’s binoculars on the cover, after all. Nice.

Here are the seven topics he writes about with remarkable candor: Cynicism, Compromise, Disconnection, Irrelevance, Pride, Burnout, and Emptiness. I bet I’m not the only one who could benefit from this book, eh?

This isn’t a memoir about a major mental health crisis or a moral failure or a terrible crack-up. It just exposes this slow, gnawing, sense that something isn’t right, that we can’t just plow on through, that we have to be aware.

Listen to just a couple of the many fans of this book and of this author:

One of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is staying the course. Experiences happening to us and around us every day try to derail us. In this book, Carey will help you identify some of the biggest distractions threatening to keep you from your God-given destiny and will provide you with tools to redirect your focus and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus so you can finish your race strong.”
—Christine Caine, best-selling author and founder of A21 and Propel Women

“If you don’t take the time to see what’s coming at you, you can’t see the One who’s coming for you. And that’s why you have to read this book, which hands you more than binoculars. Carey Nieuwhof offers you his own beckoning hand. And he is one uncommonly perceptive and generous guide whose fresh, luminous insights are a needed lens for all leaders to scout out more courage, more capacity, more Christ.”
—Ann Voskamp, author of New York Times bestsellers The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts

“Communication skills are only half the battle in leadership and life. If we’re honest, the real struggle happens inside our hearts and souls. Nieuwhof’s new book provides expert guidance in the life issues that make or break us as leaders and as people. He addresses each issue honestly and with an accuracy that pierces the heart.”
—Nancy Duarte, best-selling author and CEO of Duarte Inc.

“Carey Nieuwhof cares deeply about leaders and proves it with this challenging yet hopeful book. We all need a guide to help us know what’s around the corner in our leadership journey, and Carey provides helpful perspective for any leader at any level.”
—Brad Lomenick, author of H3 Leadership and The Catalyst Leader and former president of Catalyst

FAVORITE MEMOIRS & BIOGRAPHY

Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, A Coffin, and a Measure of Life David Giffels (Scribnerr) $16.00  I had not read a single review of this, but the title itself — gosh, even those first two words should be award winning for a great title! — and the beautiful, beautiful cover made me pick it up. I told groups about it when it first came out, people who like well-written memoir, good stories, fine writing about the meaning of life that isn’t pushy or propaganda. For readers who like those who press into the mysteries by telling a good story with eloquence and good humor.

Well, did I under-sell this. It is brilliantly written, doing all of the above in spades. Giffels is a great writer, turning phrase after phrase that made me catch my breath, even as he writes about boyhood plywood projects or going to a lumber yard with his aging father. How eloquent can a guy be talking about lumber, you ask? Pretty damn eloquent, I’d say. Giffels is a master of common-place prose and it made Furnishing Eternity a true delight. I can’t tell you enough how much I loved his writing Akron writing style.

Speaking of which, Giffels was raised by a book-loving mother — she owned the whole big set of OOD, which many a library doesn’t even own — and he teaches creative writing at University and has two other books under his belt, so he’s no novice. (He previously wrote a great volume we stock called The Hard Way: Dispatches from the Rust Belt and another memoir called All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House. He used to be on NPR and has written for, get this, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. Like I said, not a novice.)

Besides the spectacular craft of his witty, blue-collar eloquence — is that a style? I disagreed with Publishers Weekly saying it was “a sweetly mordant” — the book is tender without being sentimental, raw without being morbid. He is, you understand, making his coffin with his wood-working father. Part of it is that Giffels is cheap and can’t abide paying the crazy-high prices for those big caskets with the fancy presidential names. Also, he loves to do these kinds of projects. As his mother is dying of cancer and his father falls ill, he is forced to consider his own mortality. Furnishing Eternity is literally about making a casket (called a coffin in most other English speaking countries) with his dad. Hence the trip to the lumber section of Home Depot and his rumination about more glorious wood choices at the local lumber yard that had just burned down.

With chapter titles like “Measure Twice, Cut Once” it really does have some stuff about wood-working, although most of the writing is the bigger backstory. I liked the line from one reviewer who called it “a saga of death and carpentry.” Kirkus Review put it simply, saying Furnishing Eternity is “a lifetime’s worth of workbench philosophy in a heartfelt memoir about the connection between a father and son.”

I so enjoyed this book and I enjoyed it on multiple levels. It is doubtlessly one of my favorite books of recent years and a Best Book of 2018.

Is it possible to write about the death of your mother, the death of your best friend, the coming death of your father and the inevitable death of yourself in a context that’s both honest and lighthearted? Only if you are David Giffels, and only if you also include some practical information about woodworking. This book is like a Randy Newman song.”
Chuck Klosterman, New York Times bestselling author of But What If We’re Wrong?

“Giffels does the rare emotional work of peering behind the curtain of the father-son relationship, and examining it under the press of mortality. He writes with honesty, humor but above all generosity. We could all learn something from these excellent pages.” Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw

“Obituary writers know our job is essentially reassessing life through the lens of death, searching for lessons. Giffels’ writing is clever, vivid, hilarious and touching without ever being maudlin. He writes with the humor, expertise, reflection and precision of Steve Martin, Jessica Mitford and Bob Vila sharing a drink at a wake. In the process, he and his family have constructed a story filled with lasting lessons for us all.” —Jim Sheeler, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of Final Salute and Obit

Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints Christiana Peterson (Herald Press) $16.99  We announced this at BookNotes with great delight and I noted that throughout this memoir the author has sidebars about various saints — Francis, Clare, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, who she has an uneasy relationship with, and more — including some letters written to them. This is wonderful stuff, great for those exploring these old saints for the first time.There is a very nice foreword by spiritual writer Jon Sweeney, a former fundamentalist who learned of the mystics, especially Francis, from Mennonites (which is appropriate since Peterson and her husband joined a Mennonite rural community.) The titles refers to these mystics, but what I loved most about it was less about the contemplative journey but as a well-told memoir about a young married couple trying to find a more simple lifestyle, leaving the bustle and high-power work of Washington DC to a farming community in the rural mid-West.

Even for those who haven’t experimented with intentional living or read much about utopian communities, the back-to-the-land movement of the 70s, or the newer contemporary monastic movements, this story of a fairly mainstream couple moving to share life in this Mennonite gathering (of separate homes and land) is captivating.

Plow Creek is the name of the intentional community Christiana and her husband discovered and with a bit of prayer and vetting — but not as much as one might think — off they went to take up their new lives as part of this faith-based community. And, wow, what a journey. What a story!  Peterson is an honest and good writer and I was hooked as she so beautifully told of the experiences at Plow Creek, the descriptions of the joys and hardships of farm labor, realizing the different sort of faith traditions and personalities in the community, the struggle with members, volunteers, interns, are all told with verve and clarity. Which is to say, I couldn’t put it down. Each night I’d read more — yes, appreciating the interludes with pieces on St. Francis or Dorothy Day, and, yes, appreciating Peterson’s own journey learning about Nouwen and Merton, deepening her faith as she experimented with spiritual writings of this classic sort and dabbled in contemplative prayer herself. (Again, the blurbs are by writers like Richard Rohr, who she nicely describes reading, by the way) but be aware, the book is more about the misfits than the mystics. And much more about loss and endurance than prayer and ecstasy. It is a memoir, not a guide to contemplation, but she does introduce us to many historical figures and her description is excellent. Even those familiar with these saints will learn something new!

Listen to these two reflections on the book:

“I cried healing tears as I read this book. Christiana N. Peterson’s breathtaking way with words, coupled with her rare perception–her ability to name unseen movement in the air around grief, family, and community, and the mysterious shifts in the soul–left me pared back and longing for the deeper, more honest things of faith. Anyone grappling for words to express the strange intermingling of joy and suffering needs to look no further. Peterson brings in the misfits (the saints and the readers both), looks us in the eyes, and makes room for us to embrace the only thing we can in the midst of this nuanced, beautiful, and painful life in the flesh. She makes room for us to embrace the mystical misfit within us all.”
–Amber Haines, author of Wild in the Hollow

“In Christiana N. Peterson’s beautifully told memoir, the reader comes to understand that our relationships with saints living and dead can take many forms but that at their heart, they are about the compassion that draws us into community. Peterson deftly sketches the optimism that drew her to an intentional Mennonite community as well as the difficulties of community and family life while carrying on conversations with her chosen groupings of Catholic saints. It’s an unexpected juxtaposition that works beautifully.”        –Kaya Oakes, author of Radical Reinvention

Both of those authors, by the way, Amber Haines, a former evangelical, and Kaya Oakes, a Catholic punk rocker, have done spiritual autobiographies that blew me away. I am glad to see Christiana Peterson’s Mennonite publisher drawing on these sorts of good writers to endorse this book. It is a good, good work and should be very widely read. I gladly name it as one of my favorite books of 2018.  You’ll have to get it yourself to see how the Plow Creek story unfolds and how Christiana and Matthew and their children fared in this experiment with community. You don’t want to miss it.

How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green (HMH) $20.00 Without a doubt, this is was one of the enjoyable and moving books I read this year. I was surprised, actually, by how much I liked it. The story is simple — Sy Montgomery is a serious animal lover and a scientist of sorts, and each chapter is a part of her life as told through the lens of her relationship with an animal. From her own dog (and pig!) to extraordinary journeys to a Southern Pacific cloud forest to study rare tree kangaroos to the opening piece on making eye contact with emus in the Australian Outback.

As I said in our earlier BookNotes review, this is an immediately attractive book for those that like creative and whimsical design, but don’t let the colorful, child-like look confuse you, let alone dissuade you, for considering this extraordinary, thoughtful, beautifully-written book. I forget how we first discovered this – maybe from the brilliant Brain Pickings blog by the genius Maria Popova. It’s that kind of book: about nature and science and human psychology and meaning; it is full of nuance and wit, the wonder of life and startling truth. And it is nicely illustrated. It is, as the subtitle suggests, a study of what it means to learn from a certain animal, with each chapter exploring a certain creature.

The first line of the just-jacket reads: “Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative.” Indeed. How to Be a Good Creature is a great read for anyone who loves animals, for those who sense they are connected well to other living things, or who exhibits great empathy. This collection of animal stories is for the curious and caring, what one reviewed called “a rare jewel” and what another described as “a superbly crafted memoir,” saying it “brims with wonder, empathy, and emotion.” Beth and I both loved this book (Beth has been reading many of the chapters twice for the sheer joy of it.) I will spare you the Biblical justification for caring about creation, as I trust you understand that. You will understand it more deeply by enjoying this set of interlocking narratives. One of the Best Books of 2018.

Why Religion: A Personal Story Elaine Pagels (Ecco) $27.99 Neither Beth nor I have read this fully, but we wanted to name it because people have told us it is extraordinary. The story is remarkable — one of the leading scholars of gnosticism who went forward at a Billy Graham rally as a teen, and hung out with Jerry Garcia. Her longing to be a dancer with Martha Graham, her being groped as a young academic in religious studies, her earning national awards for contributions to history and humanities.  One customer of our insisted with great passion that it was perhaps the best book of this sort she has ever read!  We heard Pagels on NPR and we were very moved, eager to sell the book, despite some misgivings about her own personal scholarship and views about topics such as the gnostic gospels or the nature of Satan or how one determines what is true about anything, actually.

Be that as it may, Pagels is one of the legendary scholars of religion in American and is in some ways emblematic of a certain sort of non-Christian scholar who is greatly respected in the field and as such, her story is important to read.  Still, I wondered how interesting her life could be, studying and writing about arcane stuff as she does, reading Coptic, writing books? But, boy, was I wrong: Pagels writes thoughtfully and beautifully, by all accounts (one important reviewer called it “luminous”) of the deepest things of life, including the tragic death of her son — he died in her arms at age 6 — and, a year later, the shocking loss of her husband (who fell to his death while hiking) and other immeasurable hardships and perplexities. Her life has been anything but dull and her writing is vivid. This is a serious study of culture by way of a very potent memoir of a fascinating life.

Here are some of the rave reviews Why Religion? A Personal Story has garnered; it is hard to avoid the consensus among the cultural gatekeepers that this book is a must-read and worthy of our consideration. I’m hoping to finish it soon, searing as it is.

“Pagels has done it again, but more personally. The scholar’s tale of loving, grieving, enduring, and searching will grab readers at the outset and never let them go. A memorable story unforgettably told.”– Madeleine Albright, author of Fascism: A Warning
“Elaine Pagels’ study of new gospels and revelations challenged our understanding of ancient Christianity. In this mesmerizing memoir, we see how she was also grappling with devastating loss and struggling within to find “the light that never fails,” even in deepest anger and guilt, grief and desolation. A must read.”– Karen L. King, Hollis Professor Divinity, Harvard University
“Elaine Pagels has written an extraordinary memoir of loss, spiritual struggle, illumination and insight–emotionally heartrending, intellectually exciting, a model of what a memoir should be.”–Joyce Carol Oates, bestselling author
“With characteristic intelligence and wisdom, Elaine Pagels lays bare her own life-shattering losses, offering up the possibility that suffering might afford each of us membership in a profoundly connected human–and cosmic–community. Why Religion? is a revelation and an immense consolation.”– Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States
“A magnificent, searing, soul-affirming memoir. Pagels shines the bright light of her brilliant mind on the most essential of human dilemmas: how do we go on in the face of immeasurable loss? I came away from this book transformed.”– Dani Shapiro
“In this compelling, honest, and learned memoir, Elaine Pagels, takes us inside her own life in a stirring and illuminating effort to explain religion’s enduring appeal. This is a powerful book about the most powerful of forces.”– Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“A wide-ranging work of cultural reflection and a brisk tour of the most exciting religion scholarship over the past 40 years. . . . Pagels is as fearless as she is candid.”– Washington Post

Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy Michael Perry (Harper) $25.99  Beth would say that the first coupla pages are so beautiful in their homespun way that it is worth buying to book for that joy alone. She and I both agree that this was one of the most fascinating, wonderful, interesting and funny books we read all year.

I have tried over and over to convince folks that the essays and memoirs of this blue-collar Wisconsin rural guy are worth reading, every single one. From memoir-ish storytelling in Population 485 Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time to Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace to Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg to Truck: A Love Story and his several collection of hilarious collections of short essays (we named Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and Off the Back Forty one of our favorite reads in 2016!) this is an author who has a way with words, an aww-shucks sort of self-deprecating humility, and an earnest demeanor. And man, can he spin a good tale.

I’d read anything he writes, but this is curious, perhaps his most serious. Perry may come across a bit like those up North guys standing in the cranberry bogs in those TV commercials, but he’s smart as heck. In Montaigne in Barn Boots he tells how he has discovered the 1700s French philosopher. Montaigne wrote about all manner of stuff — including sex and apparently quite a bit of adolescent humor, which makes him perfect for the shameless Mr. Perry. Yet, it gets serious, pondering God and marriage and justice and illness. Perry himself has been in more pain than I think I ever would have guessed and he is vulnerable here without being saccharine. He is exceptionally thoughtful without being dense. Between barnyard jokes and small town stories and not a little bit of personal back story, Perry invites us to join in the ongoing conversation about this world-famous figure.

Perry knows the secondary literature (and there is a lot.) He’s a good teacher. Between guffaws, you’ll learn a bit. But here is what I really loved: you’ll be introduced to how a guy comes to enjoy learning about important philosophical stuff. Even while being a forgetful and sloppy worker and an anxious writer and a less than fully successful breadwinner, he’s buying books and learning up and sharing this story about his love of learning. I bet you’ve never read anything like this. Believe it or not this is absolutely a Best Book of 2018. Beth and I both say it is very highly recommended.

All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way Patrice Gopo (Thomas Nelson) $16.99  I so enjoyed this and thought it so very interesting and well written that we exclaimed about it at BookNotes late last summer when it first came out.  Many of been reading more than ever on books by people of color, memoirs and reflections to help us understand our culture these days and learn to be more effective agents navigating various subcultures and to somehow be able to do the work of being agents of God’s reconciliation.  All the Colors We Will See is simply a lovely volume, and the author is remarkable, as a gifted writer and as one with a curious, interesting story. A great blurb on the back by award-winning writer Bret Lott is pretty special, too — such an endorsement assures us we are on firm ground naming this as one of the Best Books of 2018. He notes that Gopo’s “calm voice and winsome demeanor” allows her to speak hard truths… including “what it takes to continue in Christ’s love despite the fallen and falling world around us.”

Another reviewer said it was written with “eloquence born of pain and longing.”

Patrice Gopo grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants who had little experience being black in America. How’s that for an opening salvo, an intriguing invitation to lean in and say, “tell me more”?

That she lived in Pittsburgh for a while makes it that much more enjoyable for some of us who love that city. Importantly, she navigates the shift in cultures, telling about living in the deep south, reflecting on immigration questions, turning her voice (as it says nicely on the back cover) “to themes such as marriage and divorce, the societal beauty standards we hold, and the intricacies of living out our faith.”

There is a simple eloquence here, and it is clear that this poetic writer has born pain and can teach us much about resilience, about longing, about differences and race and justice. So much in one story, eh?  You should get this for your next book club and you’ll have much to discuss, I promise.

Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved  Kate Bowler (Random House) $26.00  I hesitated to list this as I’m sure most BookNotes readers would know that it has won many awards and was much discussed earlier this year. It is what I called in BookNotes earlier this year “achingly beautiful.” Ms Bowler has garnered so much buzz and has been reviewed so well, it is nearly a publishing phenomenon, riding the best-seller list for much of the year and ending on lots of year’s end Best Books lists. Perhaps in league with the stunning When Breath Becomes Air or Being Mortal it is a book about ultimate things that is exceptionally insightful, beautifully written, raw and wise (and irreverent and funny, too, believe it or not.) With advanced rave reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, Bowler’s reflection on dying has become a touchstone for many conversations these days.

Bowler was somewhat known for an Oxford University Press book called Blessed which studied the prosperity preachersShe became a professor at Duke Divinity School. She became a young mom and then got the terrible news about her Stage IV colon cancer. She tells her story bringing us in to a colorful cast of characters with almost unbelievable candor and courage. And what a writer she is!

Her gifts and guts have made Bowler’s Everything Happens…and Other Lies… one of the most respected and truly great books of 2018.

As Glennon Doyle writes:

I fell hard and fast for Kate Bowler. Her writing is naked, elegant, and gripping – she’s like a Christian Joan Didion. I left Kate’s story feeling more present, more grateful and a hell of a lot less alone. And what else is art for? Everything Happens for a Reason is art in its highest form, and Kate Bowler a true artist – with the pen, and with her life.

Given Up For You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief Erin O. White (University of Wisconsin Press) $26.95 There are certain books that are so captivating to me, the reading of them such a full-bodied experience, that I recall where I sat, how the light fell on the page, how I felt, wiping away tears from my cheek with the back of my hand, and reading portions out lout to my own beloved spouse. Such memories are dear to me, and this was one of the most precious books for me this year. Yet, I know that some will not be as affection toward it as I would hope. It is a love story, a love story between a lesbian couple. And it was very, very well written, very moving, very enlightening for those of us who are not much experienced in such things.

The story, of course, is complicated, but I must say that as a narrative it is compelling and beautiful and humane. The writer is herself a writing instructor and has been published in good outlets such as the wonderful Portland Magazine and The New York Times. Her craft is part of the story, I suppose, as any book about an academic and writer would be.

Ms. White is a serious seeker after God, a sophisticated intellectual who through yearning and pondering concluded she wanted to go to Catholic confirmation class, learning the ancient ways of Christian belief and practice. She was drawn in by good leaders and stimulated by good theology. In the late 1990s she spent Saturday nights with her girlfriend and Sunday mornings in church. Eventually, of course, she is not permitted to join the church and much of the writing here laments “the faith denied.”

This is not an uncommon story, and I’ve read other moving memoirs of LGBTQ Christians, including those from evangelical backgrounds. From Jeffrey’s Chu’s excellent Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America to Justin Lee’s Torn to the must-read, riveting Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family (one of the most moving books I read this year, but it came out in 2017) there are many, many poignant memoirs and stories where gay persons of faith offer a glimpse into their lives. This testimonies are gifts to those of us who might not have gay friends who have shared the struggles of their interior lives. I ought not need to say this, but as a reminder, it might be wise to always recall that we enjoy and benefit from the genre of memoir not to firstly ask if we like or agree with a person’s story, but to understand. Looking over the shoulder, seeing how people narrate and make sense of their lives is always instructive and brings the “human face” to theological or policy debates, whether about the controversies of immigrants or soldiers or people of other races or other religions or those with same-sex attractions.

And so, as memoir, Give Up for You, is masterful. The title itself echoes with multiple, multiple meanings as this queer woman was turned away by her church, unable to be received because of her commitment to her lover. (Further, her lover, who Erin eventually marries, is herself not a believer.) On so many levels this is a complex, human drama, a well-told story of love and hurt, exclusion and embrace, hurt and desire. Some of it made me very sad.

It includes some exceptionally lovely writing about married life, decision making about the mundane things, balancing home and work and life and differences. Her telling of babies and raising an infant and how motherhood changes things was wonderful.

There is much to admire about Erin White’s integrity, her struggle to reconcile, as one reviewer put it, “the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith.” It is of course an anguishing question — what will I give up for God? What does God expect? And, naturally, what will I give up for my beloved? What does it mean to be true to oneself? How do any of us navigate disagreements — even deep, deep, disagreements — between us and our families and loved ones? This story is captivating and painful and gloriously written and I am sure I will never forget it.

I do not want to spoil too much but there is a small side plot, after Erin realizes she cannot be a good Catholic, when she and Greta attend an open and affirming mainline Protestant church with less rigorous theology and liturgy, but that is fully accepting of them. It is a fascinating telling of that season, in that church and pastor, which finally proves unfulfilling for them. Allow me to say that I have friends that could have written this portion of the book, and that the spiritual matters in Given Up for You sounded remarkable familiar, even if the causes of the fracture between congregant and church (between believer and God?) were different.

Here are some blurbs that endorse it, suggesting how many found it wondrous. I do not know anything about these writers (except one) but find their words helpful in understanding this religious love story and how and why it resonates so.

“Reckoning with the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith, Erin O. White has written that rare and wonderful thing: an intimately personal page-turner that raises complex questions about the wider world and our future in it.”
–Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
“A testament to the struggle to reconcile desire and belief, and a poignant reminder of what’s lost when a church refuses to open its doors wide. In beautiful prose, White shares her grief and longing for a faith denied, and in that telling claims a wholeness that was hers all along.”
–Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God
“A wonderful book about the blessings–and burdens–of love, both spiritual and carnal. In White’s heart, there may be no act more subversive than surrender, no prayer more devout than desire itself. Joyful, erotic, and contemplative. A miracle!”
–Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There
“With grace, wit, humor, and raw honesty, White gives us a story that wounds, entices, makes the reader want to say, Oh, yes, me too. This is a book for everyone who has been on a journey of love and longing. An important work.”–Rilla Askew, author of Most American
“In this tender, unsentimental and powerfully honest story, Erin O. White writes of a real life shaped by longing for God. Her prose shines, and her devotion burns: she reveals, in an utterly contemporary context, what Gregory of Nyssa saw in the fourth century: God creates life; life beholds beauty; beauty begets love; love is the life of God. A wonderful book.”–Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and City of God

MORE AWARD WINNING MEMOIRS and BIOGRAPHY

I cannot stop naming these books that so moved me this past year. As you can see, Beth and I both read a lot of memoirs, and so many were almost stunning, we were entralled and pulled into their stories. It is hard to award one without thinking of others that so moved us this year. From Tara Westhover’s much-discussed Educated: A Memoir (Random House; $28.00) to Courtney Hargrave’s satisfying Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (Convergent; $26.00) to the incredible The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by former (wrongly imprisoned) client of Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton (St. Martin’s Press; $26.99) these all must be touted this year.  Each of these books provided hours of entertainment, educating us and inspiring us. I reviewed all three in a bigger column last fall, and you may want to revisit my long explanations if you don’t recall. These are surely among the best books of 2018.

Please read about them here.

TWO MUSICAL BIOGRAPHIES

I have already written much about one of these, but want to keep the reputation of Hearts & Minds for always listing some books about rock and rollers. I hope you recall my reviews in past years of Testimony by Robbie Robertson of The Band, Rumours of Glory by Bruce Cockburn, or Steve Turner’s wonderful Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year and other interesting books about rock stars.

Here are two more for 2018.

Paul Simon: The Life Robert Hillburn (Simon & Schuster) $30.00 There has yet to be a really good biography of the legendary singer-songwriter and this one finally is the one, the one some of us have been waiting for. (Simon cooperated with it, which explains only part of its brilliance.) It’s been called “a straight-shooting tour de force” by USA Today and “epic” by Rolling Stone. It comes with raves by the poet Billy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Muldoon, even early RS writer, Cameron Crowe, who knows a thing or two about all this. Hillburn is renowned as a rock critic and biographer and is the man for the job; the magazine No Depression says, Paul Simon: The Life “flows smoothly along on the river of his liquid prose.”

 

Listen to what Bono says:

There are two great storytellers colliding here. There’s no tougher a mind, no more tender a voice than Paul Simon, and there’s no better man than Robert Hilburn to decipher the hardwiring of this hyperintellect. From the prologue I was sucked in, suckered into a sense that I too might discover the genetic code of some of the greatest songs of any century. By the epilogue, you realize the great songs can never be fully explained, but the great man on his way to find those songs surely can.

Why Should the Devil Have All the God Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock Gregory Alan Thornbury (Convergent) $26.00  Yes! Thank you Greg Thornbury for writing this book that cried out to be written, surely one of the best books of 2018.

As I said in a major BookNotes review of it last March when it first came out, this is a fabulously interesting book and, like the best rock and roll biographies, it includes lots of stuff about music and song lyrics and production of albums and rock tour stories, but also fair amount of fun celebrity gossip and, thank goodness, some social and cultural and religious commentary. How can one reflect on an artist who hung out with The Jefferson Airplane and opened for Jimi Hendrix and chatted with Paul McCartney and sang about racism and poverty and against the rootlessness of a materialistic generation not explain a bit about the ethos of the 1960s? Norman came of age, and gave voice to Christian faith amidst the California counter-culture; his art was a loud and often-controversial critique of bad religion and boring church and it stood (at least in the early days) as part of the broader zeitgeist which critiqued the bankrupt values of the American dream and the sins of the American empire.

I said, then, and still believe, that Why Should the Devil… gives us the very best study yet of the odd Christian folkie-rocker and One Way leader and it is nothing short of a must-read for anyone interested in rock music of the 60s & 70s and onward, how the Jesus Movement emerged from the hippy counter-culture, and how this gave rise, oddly – yep, this is true — to the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s and 90s.

Please visit here to read the entire review, showing why I want to celebrate Mr. Thornbury’s book as one of the Best of 2018 and a personal fav. (Notice, though, that the free offer is now expired.)

FAVORITE NOVELS

A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (Viking) $27.00  Just a few days ago a customer new to our store was gabbing and in the middle of deep conversation let out a yelp, a delightful cry of discovery, as she picked up A Gentleman in Moscow from our fiction shelves and exclaimed how much she loved it. I think she was also expressing a little surprise that a so-called Christian bookstore would carry a secular best-seller. And, I am sure, a bit of a “you to?” question — that question we have when we so love a book and wonder if others share our joy. Beth would certainly say that this was her favorite book of 2018. I’ve heard plenty about it, from customers and from her, and intend to read it myself, soon. 

Here is the bare-boned description from the publisher: “When, in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he’s sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery…”

Many of enjoyed this sprawling, witty, surprising novel, and it is on many people’s Best Books lists. It has been called winning, stylish, perfect, elegant, and irresistible. Don’t you want to order one today?

Here is what the prestigious Kirkus Review says:

In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight.this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civility.” 

While speaking of Beth’s most memorable novels this year, she reports that some of the favs that she read in 2018, had come out previously.

 

 

 

For instance,  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (VIntage; $16.00), the much-discussed Little Fires Everywhere (Viking; $27.00) and  Everything I Never Told You (Penguin; $16.00), both by Celeste Ng. 

 

 

 

 

The Edge of Over There Shawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99  Okay, this is another fictional gem that I didn’t read but that Beth adored. It’s YA fantasy, and that’s not my genre, but, whew, even though Beth rarely reads fantastical stuff like this, she was hooked by the first one, The Day the Angels Fell.

You know a book is captivating when a reader can’t wait for a sequel, and she thought The Edge of Over There was well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Really. This sequel is engrossing and when we met the author for the first time, the first thing Beth wanted to know is what is going to happen to 16 year-old Abra and her search for the next Tree of Life.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis Pattie Callahan (Thomas Nelson) $25.99 Not a few C.S. Lewis fans have hoped for a book like this for decades. It is a beautifully-told, well-realized, fictional telling of what Joy Davidman might have gone through as she married the famous Oxford don. It came out in the tail end of 2018 and became an immediate best seller.

Here are some of the good endorsements that show why this is deserving of being on the Best of 2018 list.

;”I thought I knew Joy Davidman, the oft mentioned but little examined wife of C. S. Lewis, but in Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Patti Callahan breathes life into this fascinating woman whose hunger for knowledge leads her to buck tradition at every turn. In a beautifully crafted account, Patti unveils Joy as a passionate and courageous–yet very human–seeker of answers to the meaning of life and the depths of faith. Becoming Mrs. Lewis is an unlikely love story that will touch heart, mind, and soul.” –Diane Chamberlain bestselling author of The Dream Daughter

“Patti Callahan has written my favorite book of the year. Becoming Mrs. Lewis deftly explores the life and work of Joy Davidman, a bold and brilliant woman who is long overdue her time in the spotlight. Carefully researched. Beautifully written. Deeply romantic. Fiercely intelligent. It is both a meditation on marriage and a whopping grand adventure. Touching, tender, and triumphant, this is a love story for the ages.” –Ariel Lawhon, author of I Was Anastasia

“Patti Callahan took a character on the periphery, one who has historically taken a back seat to her male counterpart, and given her a fierce, passionate voice. For those fans of Lewis curious about the woman who inspired A Grief Observed this book offers a convincing, fascinating glimpse into the private lives of two very remarkable individuals.” —New York Journal of Books

Hey, this last one doesn’t hurt either: those of us who have met C.S. Lewis’s step son, Douglas Gresham, know that he’s a straight shooter. Here’s what he says:

“It’s not supposed to be a technical biography of my mother. It’s novel. And it’s a very good one. . . extraordinarily accurate. . . more accurate than most biographical essays that have been written about my mother.”  Douglas Gresham, son of Joy Davidman

Lights on the Mountain: A Novel Cheryl Anne Tuggle (Paraclete Press) $17.99  This recent novel, set in Western Pennsylvania, North of Pittsburgh (with mentions of New Wilmington and the Beaver River and more), is beautifully rendered; it is offers gorgeous literary prose, and certain deserves accolades galore.

As I said in BookNotes when we announced a number of good novels, the story is written by an Orthodox writer and is set on a farm, and is about farming. (Move over Wendell Berry I can hear some saying!) Young Jess Hazel, the main character in the story, inherits his parents farm when he loses them in an accident.  As it says on the back cover, “Unable to shake the memory of a strange light he has seen hovering the mountain peak above his valley home, he embarks on a pilgrimage — a halting inner odyssey riddled with fits and false starts.”

This story picks up speed as it goes but even from the prelude readers know this is a very artful, intelligent writer, and it will be savored slowly as good literary fiction often is. She has a poetic voice and the story is, as one reviewer put it, “as deep and rich as the ancient ground beneath the character’s feet.”

Paraclete Press does mature spiritual books, ecumenical and contemplative resources, mostly non-fiction that is always very well done. They have a few books about aesthetics and the arts, too, so they truly have a vision for making a distinctive contribution to the publishing world. When they do novels, they are certainly well worth owning. Lights on the Mountain is surprising, eloquent, entertaining, and spiritually enriching art. Kudos.

Unsheltered: A Novel Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) $29.99  This is a novel Beth and I (and one of our daughters) read late this fall and we are still pondering it. It may be my pick for favorite fiction this year. Beth, too (after The Gentleman in Moscow, maybe.) I hope you know Kingsolver’s early works (Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, and her essays which I love, like High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder.) Too many only know her for Poisonwood Bible. So, read this one, one of the most discussed books of 2018!

Here is some of what we wrote in BookNotes this fall:

This is profound and complicated but the short version is this: every other chapter tells of the lives of two families that reside in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, one in the late 1800s and one in contemporary times. The house is falling apart which becomes an obvious metaphor for their struggles as families and for the town itself. Did you know that Vineland was an early planned community (founded by a guy named Landis who later moved to Central Pennsylvania?) Much of the plot of the story of the first family, set in the 1800s, is about a science teacher and, without spoiling too much, a character who is corresponding with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, and a renegade newspaperman who is telling the truth about some of Landis’s injustices. The contemporary story — in that same house — is about an adjunct college prof and his wife, who is taking care of a brand new grand-baby (whose mother, their daughter in law, committed suicide shortly after childbirth.)

There’s a lot of politics in this as you’d expect from the ecologically-minded, lefty Kingsolver (one of the daughters of the contemporary couple just got back from living in Cuba for a while and disapproves of her brother’s work in the financial sector.) The New York Times review said

This is fiction rich in empathy, wit, and science… Kingsolver’s gifts are ‘fierce and wondrous’ with ‘colors moving around like fire.’

There is some vulgar language here but, still, Unsheltered is a novel which, as the Washington Post Book World review put it, “is on familiar terms with the eternal.” I don’t know about that, but it sounds right. This novel is richer and more interesting the further in goes and has stuck with me for months. It is seeking a better world, asking big questions about meaning and life and death and love and goodness and the idols of our times. I admire the talents and vision of the author and I enjoyed this complex book immensely. Maybe only because of Darwin’s role in the plot, it reminded me a bit of one of my all time favorite novels, the extraordinary, unforgettable The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Kudos to Kingsolver for her craft, her cares, and her famous support for independent bookstores. It’s an honor to get to sell literature like this.

Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel Jonathan Miles (Hogarth/Random House) $16.00  We all know about ties, close calls, draws. I suppose I want to honor the above-named Kingsolver Unshelterd as my favorite novel of 2018, but, to be honest, this one was one I tore through, turning the pages and wondering what was going to happen next. It, too, is a bit vulgar, but is nonetheless a story that is about God and faith and the meaning of things. I adored Anatomy of a Miracle, now out in paperback. As I said in a previous BookNotes review this summer, the author, Jonathan Miles, is theologically aware (quoting C.S. Lewis and others about the theodicy question) and portrays different sorts of skeptics, seekers, believers, and charlatans, all really, really well. In this story, a handicapped Afghanistan war vet one day just gets up out of his wheelchair while heading to the local convenience store to buy some smokes. (You could see this alluded to on the hardback book cover.)

The parking lot of Biz-E-Bee, right there in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi, becomes a pilgrimage site as others seeking healing flock there. In the meantime both a serious theologian from the Vatican — you learn why as the story unfolds — and the doctor of the now-walking/healed vet are trying to determine what in the world happened. For the secularist scientist, there simply cannot be such a thing as a miracle, so she has to run bunches of neurological and psychological tests to figure how the inexplicable happened. (Maybe he never was really a paraplegic? Maybe he’s a nut job, or a fraud?) When the reality TV show people come in with tinsel town promises (what a way to help others, they say!) all hell breaks loose.

And all of this, even from the preface, is reported as if it is all true.

Anatomy of a Miracle is a fun and fascinating story, by a writer who has been called “gripping and memorable” and “a rare original” and “raucously ambitions.” With blurbs from the likes of Dave Eggers and Joshua Ferris and Elizabeth Gilbert and Richard Russo, you should be aware of this. I thought it one of the best I read this year and it’s just out in paperback.

STUNNING NARRATIVE NON-FICTION

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America Eliza Griswold (MacMillan) $27.00  This was one of my personal favorites and one of the Best Books of 2018. What a story. I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting my review from BookNotes as we honor the amazing work this writer did in telling this story. Few readers outside of the greater Pittsburgh area will catch the reference of the title of the stunning new book, Amity and Prosperity, not realizing that they are names of two neighboring towns near Washington, PA. Locals know that these small towns are classic examples of the post-industrial geography of Western Pennsylvania. If Hillbilly Elegy famously portrayed the rustbelt ethos of Appalachian transplants into southern Ohio, Amity and Prosperity tells with vivid detail the contours of daily life in Washington and Green counties, the northern edge of Appalachia that is no longer sustained by coal fields or steel mills and that less than a decade ago faced an “energy gold rush” with an influx of workers and money and drugs, drilling for natural gas.

The subtitle: One Family and the Fracturing of America is a significant play on words as well as this riveting book is very much about the contested practice of industrial fracking and how its deadly side effects – poisoned air and water – disrupted these congenial small towns and the larger social fabric around Washington. From Cannonsburg to Eighty-four to Cecil Township, from Lower Ten Mile Presbyterian Church to the Subway restaurant at the Lone Pine truck stop, to Southpointe, the Range Resources headquarters near the corporate hub of the oil and gas boom, the specificity of the description is spot on, clearly recognizable for anyone who lives near or has visited south-central Washington County. Although the story is a page-turner exposing corporate injustices, dishonesty, and public malfeasance – one can hardly believe how bad it gets as one family fights back against the cover-ups of the poisoning of their water – it is still appealing to read about places one knows. (How I smiled when the author describes the strikingly odd anti-environmentalist billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.) The book is being talked about throughout the county, but it really is a book about Yinzer territory.

But I can’t stress enough how universal all this is, how this tale is a story of everywhere.

Eliza Griswold is a talented and award-winning non-fiction writer, a reporter known for The Tenth Parallel, a book about inter-religious conflict mostly in the Middle East. In Amity and Prosperity she nearly embeds herself with several families and walks with them through their years of illness, losing their home, and their desperate sleuthing, investigating the poisons in their air and water. (Their own testing done with the help of local doctors proved that Range, the fracking company, was fudging the data and not being forthcoming about the chemical spills and toxic leaks from several of their fracking wells and storage ponds.) The book opens at the beloved Washington County Fair and the young people who show pigs and goats, their friendships nurtured through years in 4-H. As one teen’s animals get sick and mysteriously die, as does her neighbors prize winning horse, the reader is drawn in, knowing this portends great trouble that may not end well.

Griswold is an energetic writer and the characters she about which she tells are themselves colorful and raw and dogged, making this a great read. Their suffering seems relentless, their fears and foibles understandable, and we learn about all sorts of chronic illness, family struggles, and the consequences that bad environmental health has on their lives and community. (The social stress of speaking out among neighbors who might disapprove of their anti-fracking concerns and the differences of opinion about the vast amount of money the frackers offer, is portrayed realistically; some scenes are painfully awkward as long-time friends try not to fall out over their differences about selling out to Range.)

The plot unfolds as we see the impact this has on the teen-aged children, their extended families, their church friends, the local Fire Hall and such. Their hopes for vindication (and money for safe water service) are dashed over and over as the state DEP and the national EPA drop the ball, even on fairly obvious matters. The complicity of the DEP with the fracking industries and their refusal to press charges when environmental safeguards are disregarded are breathtaking.

Eventually a heroic lawyer couple, John and Kendra Smith, take on lawsuits against Range Resources, starting in the Washington Court of Common Pleas and eventually suing the State of Pennsylvania contesting pro-fracking policies of the Corbett administration in a case that went to the State Supreme Court.  With simultaneous legal battles from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, Amity and Prosperity becomes not only a glimpse into post-industrial small towns and the environmental consequences of fracking but also a legal thriller, worthy of any novel by Grisham. One observer called the lawyers “Mr. and Mrs. Atticus Finch.”

Do you know the movie Erin Brockovitch? This story makes that look like kid’s stuff. And it’s just as much of a ride. I hope some BookNotes readers order it.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America tells of small town life with richly textured tales of the Izaak Walton League and the county fair and the local Bible study. It also tells about earthy folk who try to stick together, sharing a community fabric that unravels when outsiders bring huge upheavals and loads of money, all in the name of progress. It also expertly shows the big picture of state and national policy, of how laws and various administrative agencies enhance or diminish the social architecture of small towns and rural areas, of the human consequences of the red and blue ideologies vying for influence. Mostly it tells of some Western Pennsylvania families, some sick kids, some corrupt businesses, and the drama of speaking truth to power, learning to be a whistle blower, and finding the faith and courage to move on, despite all.

Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America Vegas Tenold (Nation Books) $27.00  Again, this was one I stayed up late turning the pages, not wanting to miss a bit, and, months later, still recall the powerful feelings I had immersed in this remarkable reading experience. And, man, I can’t believe what some authors do to get a story told. Give this guy a medal. And a Hearts & Minds Best Book Award, at least.

I really enjoyed writing some of these lines in my BookNotes review and hope you enjoy my telling about this wild book.

I started this new book the weekend of the anniversary of the awful alt-right uprising in Charlottesville VA a few weeks ago. I guess I wanted a way to commemorate the weekend and understand this growing nationalist impulse in American culture; I wanted to learn more and somehow spend time pondering this cancer in the culture.

Alas, it was only a few weeks later when our area in York County had its own outburst of racist nonsense, with KKK and neo-Nazi propaganda showing up under the windshields of cars at a local mall.

The very night I was inviting local evangelical and mainline pastors to sign on to an inter-faith statement unequivocally condemning white supremacy of this sort (kudos to those few courageous leaders who signed it; I’ll bit my tongue about those who did not) I realized that the group whose out of state address was on this evil propaganda is one of the several groups that this brave author tells us about. All of a sudden I realized anew just how very important and relevant this riveting story is.

And, again, just how important quality narrative nonfiction can be.

I don’t need to tell you much about this other than saying it is new journalism, if you will; but not gonzo, even though there are some pretty wacky moments. Mr. Tenold is brave to embed himself in various neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and KKK chapters. It is remarkable how he earns their trust as a fair reporter; it seemed somehow even more courageous of him when we realize that many of the members of these (usually small) groups actually overlap and all are, naturally, suspicious of him.

He doesn’t say as much about it as I wish, but this kind of stuff can get you killed.

Some of these groups, like the viciously jack-booted Hammerskin Nation skinheads (whose propaganda has been seen in our fair town not too many years back) are not to be messed with. Sure they mostly listen to white power hard rock and drink a lot of bad beer and make a fetish out of their various tattoos and levels and badges, but they will stomp your face bloody if you don’t like their vile racial rants or their anti-LGTBQ shtick or their gross anti-Semitism. Think of the harrowing scenes in movies about the Mafia or books about the Hell’s Angels or the last seasons of Breaking Bad; Vegas was in with some of these sorts, it seems, even if they are motivated by grievance and fear and ideology rather than money and drugs, but the vibe is there. He’s in with ‘em all and the book had moments of pretty high drama.

It obviously wasn’t easy for Mr. Tenold to earn the trust (let alone cooperation) of these dangerous yahoos, but learning how tricky it was is almost at times humorous. Tenold develops trust with one guy in one group only to find that he is considered not radical enough, or maybe too radical, to be trusted by other far-right groups. This nationalist group doesn’t like that white supremacist crew and none like that small Nazi gang who are jealous of that Aryan club. Should they fly the Confederate flag or the KKK colors?  Even within the alt-right nationalist network there is backbiting and competition. Who knew nationalist populism was so hard?

The in-house squabbles are sometimes just personality issues among larger-than-life characters — big, weird fish in small fascist ponds, but sometimes the differences range from how brutal and severe their evil attitudes are; that is how hard-core their hate may be. Other differences were about their nearly delusional views of what strategy they might develop to change American culture. (Most, frankly, are not that interested in politics, but nearly all agree that the Trump campaign was good for their cause and most told Tenold that Trump and his movement emboldened them.)

Much of this reminded me of the debates, both ideological and strategic, among the far left. (If I never hear another argument about Trotsky vs. Marx ever again I will be happy.) And (let’s be honest, here) among church folks, too. Yep, I guess it’s true that many who care deeply about their convictions – righteous or unrighteous — end up in partnerships with others, and there the sparks can fly. According to Tenold, when the sparks fly with these guys, it might include dynamite. Seriously.

Still, while a few of the alt-right white guys this intrepid reporter meets are truly unhinged, some are somewhat intelligent and seem, at times, almost reasonable and somewhat likable. Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, is one of the major characters that Tenold comes to know. He is a person that a good friend of mine crossed paths with years ago. (Episodes of him starting white pride student clubs at places like Towson State University are described. I recall talking with Christian groups on campus a few years ago about how to respond to this stuff and as I was reading Everything You Love Will Burn I got this sinking feeling in my gut – oh, God, it’s that guy that my friends used to debate, trying to call him to repentance and sanity. Little did we know how ideologically dangerous he’d become, how prominent…)

Matthew, (who was raised in a church) was trying, oddly, to unite skinheads and the KKK and other fiery racists (the “boots”) with the intellectual architectures of the alt-right like Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon (who they called “the suits.”) He goes from backwoods meetings with Aryan nationalists in the deep South and National Socialists (aka Nazis) in the rustbelt mid-West to speaking to Republican congresspeople in the esteemed GOP Capitol Club across from the Capitol. This stuff is riveting and nearly unbelievable.

Many of the folks in these far-right gangs are poor and pathetic, and I found myself feeling empathy, at least, for some of the sad sacks with their ragged KKK outfits and stupidly silly, secret traditions, costumes, and half-baked rituals.There is a scene of a KKK funeral and another of a KKK wedding and both were so fascinatingly, humanly, told that I almost forgot my revulsion of such horrid stuff. That this left-wing, seemingly secular writer doing this brave expose could conjure any sympathy for these devious characters with their evil ideas is itself a good indication of the quality of this moving narrative; in fact, at one point he himself worries about his own “Stockholm Syndrome” as he learned to care for some of these damaged folks. I appreciate that, as it would be easier to merely demonize them in one-dimensional dismissal. Geesh, I almost felt bad for the one dude who got his huge swastika tattoo inked on himself backward.

And so, as I’m reading several chapters at a time, late one night I turn to a new chapter and it is called “Harrisburg.” Whoa! There isn’t that much local color in this chapter, actually, as it features mostly a story about a failed attempt at a unifying rally with several different groups with conflicting styles and views. They do go to the local Dicks Sporting Goods store, where I’ve been, to buy some pepper spray and have a funny debate about which kind works best. The organizer, who hoped for a more moderate, united front, was frustrated at the vile public speeches given – apparently some of the other leaders didn’t get the memo that they were to turn down the hateful rhetoric to soften their image and improve their public appeal in our state’s capitol. More likely, they were privy and just weren’t about to back-peddle their white supremacy spiel for the sake of some reasonable alt-right movement. The Harrisburg event, shall we say, didn’t go well.

In Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of… you not only get a glimpse of all kinds of far right hate groups but you learn about their history, their leaders, and some of their odd secrets. You follow Matthew as he becomes increasingly radicalized; month by month by month as the book itself unfolds. One can see where it is leading, now in retrospect, even as the author could not at the time. He almost didn’t attend the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville as he was drawing the book to a close. Matthew convinced him it might be bigger and more important than many of the other nearly silly rallies and marches to which Tenold followed him; little did either of them know how it would end.

There is some talk of religion in this book, but even more hate. There is some tenderness, but even more violence. There are some good words, but much more profanity. And there is some outrageous neo-Nazi street fighting and KKK cross burning and dramatic, evil, high-jinx, but there’s much more that is more mundane— conversations over pancakes at the local diner, lectures at the local college campus, long car rides here and there, dumb conventions and meetings and endless white supremacy confabs with the same gang of poor white folks and delusional “leaders” who are often nearly comical in their lack of common sense and social skills. This book is high octane at times, obviously, but it isn’t all ball-of-fire drama; The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man” would be a soundtrack for only a small part of it.

But, again, despite Vegas Tenold’s admirable willingness to write honestly about the humanity of these marginalized white folk and his honest reporting of their antics, let us be clear. This movement is hateful, dangerous, and real. It is growing. Perhaps it is best to ignore them when they come to your town, but, at least, we should know about them. Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America by Vegas Tenold s a must-read for those who want an inside glimpse into this rising movement. It is also a good read for anyone that wants some nearly gonzo journalism, a daring reporter from the far left who has become friends with the guys in the far, far right. What a story! What a read!

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America Beth Macy (Little Brown) $28.00 This. This is one of the most amazing books of 2018 and many, many observers have insisted it is a masterpiece of groundbreaking reporting. I love this writer and trust her writing and you will be amazed at what you learn (outraged, too) by taking up even a few chapters of Dopesick.

Beth Macy, you may recall, is the author of Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – And Helped Save an American Town a book we’ve touted often – it is such a thrilling read of narrative nonfiction, delving deep into small town intrigue and heroic, reformist sorts of business-world efforts as a furniture manufacturer tries to keep his plant open and his workers employed. Macy is a talented storyteller and excellent journalist, reporting well after doing months and months (if not years and years) of tenacious research. After Factory Man she released, in 2016, TrueVine, a brilliant true crime expose, laden with sorrow and racism and also delight and complexity and goodness. I suspect neither gets as much attention as they deserved.

Since then, she has embedded herself in the world of opiate addictions, although as one reviewer reminds us, Dopesick is “not about the drugs. It’s a book about kids and moms and neighbors and the people who try to save them. It’s about shame and stigma and desperation.” Yes, but also, it’s about bad policy, greed, and corruption.

Tony Horwitz (of Confederates in the Attic) calls it “a harrowing journey through the history and contemporary hellscape of drug addiction.” It has been compared to the most important book of this sort in recent years, Sam Quinones Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. (Dreamland, you should know, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.) Beth Macey’s Dopesick is equally acclaimed, winning a number of important awards. And our little shout out here.

Still, Dopesick also allows us to see the biggest picture, including the knowing corporate greed, naming both big pharma companies and notable regulatory failure. She shows the evolution of the epidemic, starting largely, as she shows it did, in the Virginia coalfields in the westernmost corner of the state to three culturally distinct communities. The story moves “from OxyContin in 1996 to other painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet to heroin, the pills’ illicit twin, and, later, even stronger synthetic analogs.”

“Heroin landed in the suburbs and cookie-cutter subdivisions near my home,” she writes, “in Roanoke in the mid-2000s. But it wasn’t widely acknowledged until a prominent jeweler and civic leader drove her addicted son to the federal prison where he would spend the next five years, for his role in a former classmate’s overdose death.”

As she covered that story she saw the overdose deaths spread north along I-81 from Roanoke. “It infected pristine farm pastures and small northern Shenandoah Valley towns, as more users, and increasingly vigilant medical and criminal justice systems, propelled the addicted onto the urban corridor from Baltimore to New York….”

BEST BOOKS ABOUT FAITH & THE ARTS

Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life Jennifer Allen Craft (IVP Academic) $30.00  This is yet another in the exceptional, thoughtful, scholarly series called Studies in Theology & the Arts and we are very, very glad to honor this latest release in this series. I think when we first reported about this in BookNotes I quipped something to the affect that “just when you thought there was little else to say about the interface of faith and the arts…” Yes, indeed, this very idea deserves an award and it is beautifully, artfully, if seriously, explored.

It is, as you can tell from the title, a study of place. I can do no better than to allow the publisher to explain this complex and yet sensible idea:

We are, each one of us, situated in a particular place. As embodied creatures, as members of local communities and churches, as people who live in a specific location in the world, we all experience the importance of place. But what role does place play in the Christian life and how might our theology of place be cultivated? In this Studies in Theology and the Arts volume, Jennifer Allen Craft argues that the arts are a significant form of placemaking in the Christian life. The arts, she contends, place us in time, space, and community in ways that encourage us to be fully and imaginatively present in a variety of contexts: the natural world, our homes, our worshiping communities, and society. In so doing, the arts call us to pay attention to the world around us and invite us to engage in responsible practices in those places. Through this practical theology of the arts, Craft shows how the arts can help us by cultivating our theological imagination, giving shape to the Christian life, and forming us more and more into the image of Christ.

To accomplish this, Craft explores the relationship of art and the natural world, of course. There’s a good section on homemaking and hospitality. Thirdly, she has a chapter on the churches role in placemaking, and using the arts to help deepen our experience of mission and place. The fourth major chapter is about society more generally. What good stuff this is, exploring the placed consequences of a robust vision of the arts.

Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God      Jeremy Begbie (Eerdmans) $18.00

A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts                            Jeremy Begbie (Baker Academic) $32.00

Is there a dual award for an author who puts out two remarkable, substantive books on the same field, and both seem to be utterly righteous and commendable? A lesser author might rehash previous stuff, or have one be a less academic version of another, but both of these 2018 releases are splendid, serious, major contributions towards a Christian view of aesthetics and the arts. Redeeming Transcendence is perhaps (I’m stretching here) about the arts from a theological perspective while A Peculiar Orthodoxy is perhaps more about theology, viewed through the contributions of music and the arts.

The former, published by Eerdmans in paperback, is asking if transcendence is something that we should properly speak of when talking about our experience of art. It is a live questions, with lots of implications. He uses a “Trinitarian imagination” and says yes. The endorsing blurbs include rave reviews by N.T. Wright (himself a composer), poet Christian Wiman, the justly famous abstract artist Mako Fujimura, and visual artist, collector, art historian and leader of CIVA, Sandra Bowen.

Just listen to these comments:

“Begbie’s argument here, both learned and lucid, is that only when we allow for a more explicitly biblical and Trinitarian vision of God will the vague claims for transcendence in the arts begin to make sense. This book will challenge and illuminate the whole field.”             –N.T. Wright

“This book is a revelation. Jeremy Begbie has distilled much of modern theological aesthetics–and has done so with a sensitivity that is alert to the realities of a practicing artist. I feel both chastened and emboldened by his thoughts.”  –Christian Wiman

“Jeremy Begbie has consistently been an essential guide for me as an artist who thinks theologically. Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts finds Jeremy at his best — full of theological wisdom and aspiration, with abundant artistic inspiration. A stellar guidebook for our complex journey of art, faith, and theology.”  –Makoto Fujimura

“This book is a must-read for those at the intersection of art and theology.” –Sandra Bowden

The second one mentioned, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, published in hardback by Baker Academic, has a related but different concern; the endorsing blurbs do not include artists as such, but theologians, mostly — granted, exceptional ones, such as Matthew Milliner, Trevor Hart, Judith Wolfe, and Alan Jacobs.

Listen to Nicholas Wolterstorff on A Peculiar Orthodoxy:

Orthodoxy, yes, but not at all peculiar–unless it is peculiar for a person so steeped in orthodox trinitarian theology to be so richly acquainted with the arts, or peculiar for a person so richly acquainted with the arts to be so steeped in orthodox trinitarian theology. Only a person as learned and immersed as Begbie in both of these areas of human endeavor could spy the wide range of connections that he brings to light between theology and the arts, especially music, many of them connections I had never noticed, connections that I will want to think about for quite some time. Extraordinarily perceptive. And the range of reading brought into the discussion, with never-failing generosity of spirit, is amazing. This is state of the art!”

The Art of Edward Knippers: Prints and Drawings edited by James Romaine (Square Halo Books) $19.99 This latest release in the small but vital “The Art of…” series by the Lancaster-based boutique arts publisher, Square Halo, is a sight to behold, and a valuable historical artifact by one of the most important Christian painters of the last 40 years.

Mr. Knippers is a conservative evangelical and masterful painter, known for, among other things, vivid, lurid, violent, stunning paintings — often very large — of Biblical characters. He famously does many of them nude, mostly to show that these people are real, raw, grounded in history and creation. These are no fairy tales or myths. He resists the ethereal spirituality of Gnosticism and its related pieties with all his painterly might. There is nothing sexual about them, of course, but on occasion he is protested and his works have been damaged and defaced by fundamentalist censors who somehow find the penis of David or Jesus to be offensive. Touche, Knippers.

This book is visually striking with dozens and dozens of small pieces but, like the others in this series, includes good commentary and informed Christian criticism. This book offers a small collection of essays about the important late 20th century/21st century painter and they are excellent — even if you are unfamiliar with Mr. Knippers and his work. There is a foreword by Bruce Herman (and it is always a joy to read anything by him, retired now from teaching at Gordon College) and the major introduction by historian James Romaine. There are other pieces — “Faith and Form” is the central essay, by Chat Barlett, who studied at MICA, although the striking Steve Prince — now at Wayne State in Detroit teaching drawing and printmaking — has a fabulous short essay explaining Knippers as a printmaker and, curiously, happily, Danika Bigley (who holds a degree in Dance Performance from the Purchase Dance Conservatory in New York) has a essay entitled. To quote Romaine, “Bigley’s essay frames Knippers’ narrative treatment of the nude figure in terms of a dancer’s understanding of the body in motion.”(He continues, “She also touches on issues of sexual slavery and the freedom of marriage as seen in his art and in the Bible.) There is a closing conversation with Ed Knippers, interviewed by James Romaine as they strolled through the National Gallery of Art not long before the book came out. Overhearing part of that interview, transcribed nicely for us by Margaret Bustard, is a great privilege.

Of course, through it all we have the smaller works of Ed Knippers (not reproductions of his large paintings) and the diversity of styles and subjects makes this a sheer delight, a great little book of art. This includes many black and white drawings and etchings, prints, and one section of preliminary sketches. There is helpful explanation of these; despite the excellent, substantive text, this is still mostly a book featuring the artwork itself. It makes a fabulously interesting, inexpensive coffee table book. Kudos to Square Halo for this labor of love, adding The Art of Edward Knippers to their previously published wild paperback The Art of Guy Chase and the lavish, priceless hardback, The Art of Sandra Bowden.

God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes From the Life of Alexander Hamilton & The Broadway Musical He Inspired Kevin Cloud (Deep River Books) $15.99 Can we at least agree to give this book a “got there first award? It had to happen, and we couldn’t be happier to know that this book will take its place alongside many, many other studies of God in popular culture. My old housemate Bill Romanowski wrote one of the defining books on a methodology for discerning themes of faith — good or bad faith, that is — in popular entertainment and his Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture remains a standard in the field. (Look for his forthcoming book on film in late May 2019, by the way, to be entitled Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning, published by Baker Academic; $22.99 for those that want to PRE-ORDER it.) But I digress…

We are here to close up our list of (at least some of) our favorite books of 2018 and want to affirm this fine study of theological themes and enduring insights from the smash Broadway hit. It’s fun to see very thoughtful writers endorsing this — from the justice activist Phileena Heuertz to film scholar (and now President of the Seattle School of Theology) Craig Detwiler and glorious memoirists like Katie Savage (we love her book Grace in the Maybe that alerts us to seeing signs of life in daily stuff.) And there are signs of life in Hamilton and Cloud helps us explore them.

I have not see the play and am less familiar with the soundtrack than, well, 3/4 of the people I know. But when I see this evangelical leader thanking Lin-Manuel Miranda so earnestly, and read cast members offering affirmations for this thoughtful book, when solid missional pastors and thinkers I respect rave, I know this is worth celebrating.

Who knows, maybe there will be more studious and enduring books on a Christian evaluation of the Broadway phenom. There will be ongoing engagement with Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, on which the play was based, and which Cloud refers to nicely. I’m sure there will be more to this on-going conversation.

For now, this is a fabulous little resource and we are happy to honor it, thanking those who are helping us think faithfully with “eyes wide open” seeing the “trailing clouds of glory” even in a hip hop musical about a long dead politician. Hip, hip hooray!

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BEST BOOKS OF 2018 – Hearts & Minds Bookstore’s Behemothic, Belatedly-listed, Best, Beloved, Books of the Bygone Year PART ONE – ON SALE

January has flown by and I have felt terrible that I’ve not yet given any of our customary Best of the Year Awards. With several demanding out of town book set ups and my elderly mom being in the hospital (and now back in her assisted living place) and some stupid stuff here (snow shoveling, for instance; engaging in draining social and civic responsibilities as we try to bear witness against these hard days, feeling at times “derailed and desperate” as singer Bruce Cockburn sings) I just haven’t been able to find the energy to create my typical big list of stellar titles.

I can’t not do this, though — thanks to those who told me they were waiting for my celebrations, as I was thinking of just skipping it this year. 2018 was a great year for Beth and me if measured in terms of the wonderful joys of reading good books, fiction and non-fiction. Here, then, is my report from the field, titles we loved, books we found lovely or challenging, authors that impressed us, stuff we liked having the opportunity to review and even sell.

This is less a “Best of 2018” list and more a summary of books that we liked or want to highlight as commendable. I’ll start out here with a big list of important releases. I don’t have the stamina to review them all with the care they surely deserve. Maybe you don’t have the stamina to read hefty reviews and I tried to explain why there are significant and deserving of your attention. I hope you have the wherewithal to order a few. Consider it a small price to pay for hearing about this stuff from us. Send us some orders, soon, please.

  • THIS IS PART ONE OF A LISTING OF ONLY SOME OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS THIS YEAR. WATCH SOON FOR ANOTHER LIST (PART TWO) WHICH WILL INCLUDE MEMOIRS, FICTION, BOOKS ON THE ARTS AND POPULAR CULTURE, AND PERHAPS SOME OF OUR MOST DELIGHTFUL CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF 2018.
  • WATCH ALSO FOR A SPECIAL BOOKNOTES  COLUMN (PART THREE) NAMING A FEW OF THE YEAR’S BEST BOOKS ON RACIAL JUSTICE, MUTI-CULTURAL MINISTRY, AND OTHER TITLES TO ADVANCE ETHNIC AND RACIAL RECONCILIATION.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite books in the categories of Christian cultural engagement, Biblical studies, spiritual formation, discipleship, church life, current affairs, and the like, in the Year of our Lord, 2018.

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis  Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press) $25.95  I hope you recall how we announced this earlier, insisting that the idea of it — not to mention the research — was brilliant. Jacobs is a great writer, a remarkably adroit thinker, and here he tells of five major Christian thinkers who, after World War II, published major works questioning the idols of Western culture and wondering how a renewal of a Christian-like humanism might help us survive the coming technocracy. Jacobs explores Christian intellectuals Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, who “sought both to articulate a sober and reflective critique of their own culture and to outline a plan for the moral and spiritual regeneration of their countries in the post-war world.”  This is one of the most learned and vital and valuable books of many a year.

Alan Jacob’s prose wears immense learning lightly, with great grace and to great effect. To think alongside these writers, under Jacobs’s stage direction, to hear them across a gap of three-quarters of a century think with gravity and sincerity, pondering the nature of the human soul, palpably straining toward the ideal of the common good, feeling the pull of their religion’s perennial pitfalls, in a situation and language different from and yet not wholly unlike our own, is riveting, challenging, and life-giving. –Lori Branch, author of Rituals of Spontaneity

Alan Jacobs has written an elegant and deeply learned book on Christian humanism in the critical years of the Second World War. He opens a window into some of the most luminous and profound thinking about the nature and possibilities of civilization during those troubled years. By doing so, has opened a window for thinking about our own troubled times. –James Davidson Hunter, author of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future edited by Todd Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher Devers (IVP Academic) $28.00  This is one of those books that deserves a very thorough study, a review that explains each and every chapter and celebrates the good work of each and every contributor. The work is good and the contributors fascinating — Mark Noll, Lauren Winner, James K.A. Smith, Jo Anne Lyon, Timothy Larson, Mark Gallie, and more. If you are a serious fan of Hearts & Minds you will know why we honor this book as one of the most important of 2018 and you’ll want to have it on your own bookshelf. Heck, you might want to order it and then throw a party. It is not only a good, good book on its own merit, but it stands for something, signifies a renaissance of thoughtful Christian publishing and intentionally deepening of the evangelical mind, even a renewal of faith-based higher education, and a revival of the Christian presence in the arts, a project in which some observers have said we have played a small part. (Okay, only a very small part, but we all need stuff to celebrate, so keep that party going!)

This shift towards better Christian publishing and evangelical perspectives being heard in  literature, journalism, science, culture and education, say, is a part of our story and part of the renewal happening with evangelical and church-related colleges, and part of the cause for the remarkable rise of publishers like Baker Academic, Brazos, Crossway, and InterVarsity Academic, all who have brought — like Eerdmans before them — a historic evangelical take on the arts and sciences, culture and creation. That many younger evangelicals have been shaped in recent decades by brilliant scholars and serious writers and the rise of organizations in the arts, marketplaces, and professions taking up the high calling of integrating faith and work, nurturing the habits of the mind, deepening the virtues of the intellectual life, is not to be taken for granted.

This historic renewal of concern for Christian worldviews and a Biblical mindset and strengthening of institutions of higher education and  the necessary periodicals and organizations and publishing agendas and institutional networks developed for a reason, and in God’s timing, part of that impetus was the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by historian and critic Mark Noll in 1994. The State of the Evangelical Mind emerged from a conference held (at Wheaton College, naturally) to ask the question of how we’ve faired since that hard hitting critique of the lack of a historic, evangelical engagement in scholarship and culture.

This new book, inspired by Noll, and with a major contribution by him, is dedicated to John and Wendy Wilson. John was the erstwhile and colorful editor of one of the most brilliant journals in America, the deeply Christian Books & Culture. That it arose inspired, in part, by Noll’s mid-90s cri de coeur and yet collapsed in the 2015 is a tragedy that should sober any upbeat reading of The State of the Evangelical Mind. Different scholars who contributed to this book have differing takes on what has happened in recent decades, but few can deny there has been a great publishing renaissance since the days when Zondervan published books about John DeLoreans car and Revell made a mint on Marabel Morgan’s Saran Wrap when there were hardly any books on art or science or ecology or film or gender or economics or political theory from a thoughtful Christian viewpoint. My heard starts pounding when I think of how one author, a big name in Christian Bookselling Association circles, threatened to sue us because we said her goofy accusations about Richard Foster being pagan and Ron Sider being a communist was hogwash. Those were the days when a customer of ours circulated a petition against us in part because we carried bookmarks that had rainbows on them, a secret sign of a conspiracy towards One World Government, doncha know?

So, we’ve come a long way. But not far enough along, so that a journal like Books & Culture could survive. This recent book offers a variety of voices on that story, where we’ve been, what’s going on now, and what might be to come. If you know anybody in higher education, any young Christians in graduate school, anyone who does campus ministry and works in higher learning, if you know anybody who is an engaged professional, if you know anybody who reads literary fiction or science journals or The Paris Review or First Things or Tin House or Foreign Affairs, then this book is for them.

Harry Stout, the legendary Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale says the chapters here are “judiciously rendered thought pieces… uniformly astute, well written, and in short, ruthlessly truthful. The result is a stunning achievement.”

Wilfred McClay of the University of Oklahoma, writes, “If the richness and maturity of a tradition can be judged by the quality of the debate and the healthy self-criticism it generates, then the evangelical intellectual tradition shows itself to be alive and cackling in this stimulating and thought-provoking book.”

Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, says:

From Mark Noll’s influential Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994 to the thoughtful essays included in The State of the Evangelical Mind, we are reminded — and indeed challenged — to continue cultivating leaders who devote their training and God-given talents to generating solutions and shaping ideas at the highest level of the academy and society.

I am very glad for this book and we award it as one of the Best of the Year.

It is sweet and significant that in the foreword by Rich Mouw he starts with a story from an old acquitance of ours, a Mennonite who was, until his untimely death, the President of near-by Messiah College. (Not too many college Presidents have visited our Dallastown store.) Mouw writes about an observation Rod Sawatsky was fond of making about evangelical higher education. “We give much attention, he would say, about the relationship between faith and learning, but we hear almost nothing about the relationship of hope and love to learning.”  Mouw continues, “The explorations in this book make good headway in addressing Rod’s complaint.”  Thanks be to God. Tolle lege.

Whole & Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World Al Tizon (Baker Academic) $22.99 At a bit over 200 pages this book covers so much good stuff it deserves multiple awards — best book on the nature of the gospel, best book of missiology, best book as a foundation for peace and justice work, best book on the Biblical narrative. I suppose I’d celebrate it as one of the best books by a friend who has picked up books from us here at Hearts & Minds. (Runner up to Believe Me author Professor John Fea.) I think it has one of the stronger cover designs, too — what a photo, and what a title.

So, I am very fond of Al Tizon and have stocked his other books (such as his Judson Press volume Missional Preaching: Engage Embrace Transform.) Al used to work for Evangelicals for Social Action and taught with Campolo and Ron Sider at Eastern University and Palmer Seminary, so it was natural that he helped compile and edit a feschgrift in honor of Sider that was called Following Jesus: Journeys in Radical Discipleship: Essays in Honor of Ronald J. Sider (a former Best Book of the Year award winner from here at Hearts & Minds!) Al Tizon, now executive minister of Serve Globally, the international ministries arm of the Evangelical Covenant Church, is also an affiliate professor at North Park Theological Seminary.He is a man we admire and appreciate.

In a way, it seems that Whole & Reconciled is one of those books a scholar works on his or her whole life, a magnum opus. Yet, Al is no where near the end of his important career and may have even more books in him. But this, this truly is a major contribution, and mighty, multi-disciplinary work, visionary and solid. Whole & Reconciled is doubtlessly one of my favorite books of 2018 and clearly one of the most important books to be released this year.

Some readers will recall that several decades ago there was much conversation about how best to define mission work — words or deeds? evangelism or social action? church planting or development? — and the best thinkers bravely went against the tide of their respective traditions that routinely, often loudly, insisted it was one or the other and said that it must be both. Holistic, intregal, Kingdom advancing ministry was proposed as a Biblically-required and theologically-sound alternative to the typical voices of the fundamentalists and the liberals, both who, in their respective mission agencies and declarations, privileged one approach over and against the other.

Well, years of debate and crisis on the ground caused brilliant work to be done within the evangelical camp — the World Council of Churches and other such groups were more reluctant to revise their social gospel only approach, or so it seems — and an entire body of literature evolved over decades (including statements such as those that came out of Lausanne) that offered a deep and faithful understanding of how Christ is Lord of all of life and therefore redemptive work must be culturally relevant, spiritually and theologically sound, and of solid service to those whom we are called to serve (not least, the poor, sick, and marginalized.) I am confident that some of the very best work done in the last fifty years in global development and majority world contextualized social reform has been led by evangelicals with a deep passion to integrate word and deed, good news and good works. In fact, even the “both/and” approach has been criticized for even assuming there are two aspects of Biblical witness that have to be somehow brought together. Kingdom living is multi-dimensional as all of creation is being healed by Christ so a fully robust missiology has to be more than merely “bringing together” words and deeds.

Well, there hasn’t been a book that has approached this subject so thoroughly in decades and the time is ripe for not only a reminder of the nature of wholistic mission but an updating and even revamping of some of the key themes of this wonderful vision. Whole & Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World is just the right book at the right time and Al Tizon, himself a Filipino American with much global experience, is just the right author for the job. One of the grandfathers of this move towards wholistic evangelical missiology is Samuel Escobar raves, as does Christopher Wright of Langham Partnership (doubtlessly one of the most important Biblical scholars writing on missional themes in the Scriptures.) Always edgy and poetic Ruth Padilla DeBorst (daughter of another pillar in the movement, Rene Padilla) writes a powerful Foreword and Ron Sider has a very impressive Afterword. In other words, Whole & Reconciled really is considered by many to be a major release and an exceptional new resource for God’s people who care about the world.

The book is arranged in four units, with a couple of great chapters in each. The four parts are Whole World, Whole Gospel, Whole Church, and Whole Mission. Every one of these sections are worth the price of the whole book and Tizon is to be thanked for packing so very much good content in such readable, lively prose. It is for anyone who ponders the implications of the gospel of reconciliation, the transforming power of a Kingdom vision, the adventure that awaits when the whole people of God care about the whole gospel for the whole world. What a book!

Mae Elise Cannon, director of Churches for Middle East Peace and author of Just Spirituality, The Social Justice Handbook, and A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land writes:

Whole & Reconciled speaks of the entirety of the gospel without discarding the uncomfortable truths and demands of biblical justice, peacemaking, and reconciliation. Tizon explains how the gospel necessitates the type of reconciliation that penetrates the deepest aspects of individual and community relationships with truth, love, and vulnerability. Read this important book to learn to be challenged to embrace what it means to be truly whole and reconciled.

Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (Fortress Press ) $18.99  Well. Speaking of discussion about the nature of mission and hearing voices from the global church, of wanting to work for the unity of the Body of Christ — for the sake of the needy world and creation itself, this is an author who has been on the front lines for decades and is a voice you should know, whose books you should read. Wes Granberg-Michaelson has spent his adult life pondering and working on these very things. This is surely, surely, one of the most important books of 2018 — and I think really helpful for anyone involved in church life. The great and interesting foreword by Soong-Chan Rah says it wonderfully, assuring us that this is an excellent tool for local church folks.

I suppose you might recall me writing about Granberg-Michaelson’s other books. Years ago he worked for a hero of mine, Senator Mark Hatfield (an anti-war Republican who gave a fantastic keynote talk at one of the early Jubilee conferences in Pittsburgh — that Wes wrote.) He moved over to Sojourners for a while and eventually became a leader in his own denomination, the Reformed Church in America.  He has written about leadership and about creation care and has published dozens if not hundreds of articles all over the world. As he describes in his wonderful biography, Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity he tells of how an evangelical kid from the mid-West ended up living in Geneva working for the World Council of Churches. His travels among the global church put him in the upper circle of key scholars of global Christianity (in league with Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins and the recently passed Lamin Sanneh) but he writes more tellingly, with vivid storytelling and obvious investment in church life. His 2013 book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church is more important now than it was 10 years ago.

And so, as we’ve said at BookNotes more than once, Future Faith takes all this stuff about social trends and globalization and multi-ethnicity and the shifts in world Christianity and tells how it effect the ordinary local congregation. It offers us key trends we have to be a part of, one way or another; he pitches them as challenges, but it could just as easily have been written as opportunities. Whether you are a mainline Presbyterian or high-brown Episcopalian or a community church that is non-denominational, a Gosepl Coalition Reformed Baptist or a progressive emergent community or a typical Roman Catholic or Lutheran this book will help you. Some of you will intuitively grasp more than others, some will need more help than others, some churches may be doing well with one challenge but maybe less so on another, but Future Faith is a needed guide. It is vital for all to frame your own ministry and congregational integrity for the next decade.

Not everyone will agree that each of these 10 challenges are as pressing as Wes may say. That’s okay. Even if he’s partially right, there is so much good stuff here to ponder and so many theologically-driven, culturally-savvy imperatives that it is sure to be an aid to your growth in deeper faithfulness. As Soong-Chan Rah says in the foreword, this book will start (or deepen) a conversation, and that’s what is key.  It’s why we celebrate Future Faith as one of the most important books of 2018.

Few guides to the future of faith are as trustworthy as Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. This book is filled with wisdom drawn from a lifetime of experience and a heart of passion for the love and justice proclaimed by Jesus.  Diana Butler Bass, author Gratitude: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks

This is an inspiring and encouraging book, with wise insights into what we can and must do to remain faithful to God’s work of renewal in the world. Future Faith disturbed me as it informed me. But, thank God, it also gave me hope.  Richard Mouw, President emeritus Fuller Seminary

The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology Michael Goheen (Baker Academic) $22.99  This came out late in the fall and although I can’t say I’ve read every page, I can say that it deserves to be named an an exceptionally notable work. There has been (especially just a couple of years ago) a huge discovery (or rediscovery) of the wonderful work of Lesslie Newbigin. From his many volumes written out of his time in India (where he lived and ministered for most of his adult life) and then his ground-breaking work about how to use contextualization principles (that cross cultural missionaries routinely use) in the post-Christian, secularizing West. In books like Foolishness to the Greeks and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society Newbigin set the stage for what has become the missional church movement. There are bunches of fantastic missional church resources, some quite lively, all indebted to Newbigin.

Many of the best missional church resources not only attempt to analyze the culture, wondering how the Kingdom of God can break through into that distorted creation that God so loves, but ask what kind of local church do we need to proclaim a missional model, and all-of-life-redeemed Kingdom expression in the world as it is?  (For what it’s worth, this is the exact question David Fitch asked in his very impressive IVP book, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission which was then summarized last year in the pocket-sized Seven Practices for the Church on Mission.)

So, there has been a renewed interest in Newbigin, in his understanding of culture and the missional project, and in his view of Scriptures that yielded such a robust missiology. Many of these books are great, and many of the more popular misisonal books are in discussion with them. Through it all, though, no one figure (in my opinion, at least) has as much insight into Newbigin and his relevance today as Michael Goheen. Those that follow Lesslie Newbigin studies know him well. Interestingly, some of the Dutch neo-Calvniists who talk about worldview and draw on Al Wolter’s often-cited Creation Regained might notice that it was Goheen who did a final chapter in the second edition, and an afterward about how Newbigin’s project of missional church stuff aligned with Al’s Kuyperian worldview and call for distinctively Christian philosophy to fund proper social engagement. Goheen, that is, is an important figure in several different traditions and communities.

Which is a very long way of saying why this book is a must-read, why it should be widely known, and why we want to honor it as a truly vital voice, a major release about a very important topic.  What kind of churches do we need to do all this good stuff? I know a book on a South Indian missionary that has eccelisology in the subtitle doesn’t sound like a best-seller, but let us pray that many read it, take up its challenge, and carefully use Newbigin’s good ideas, filtered through Goheen’s good framework, for pushing for congregational renewal that bears fruit fo the Kingdom of God. Out of concern for God’s church we must cry out and push for serious work on parish life. This book will help.

Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey Barbara Melosh (Westminster John Knox Press) $18.00  We stock so many books for congregational leaders — everything from Abingdon and Alban and the like — but occasionally a book comes along that stands out for it’s literary quality and it’s charm and quiet insight. In the last few years I keep raving about the epistolary novel, Love Big Be Well: Letters to a Small Town Church by Winn Collier (which Eugene Peterson just raved about.) I’ve been on the look-out for something to recommend like that.

Loving and Leaving a Church is not fiction, but a memoir of a new Lutheran pastor, a second-career woman, in her first pastorate. She was “brimming with enthusiasm and high hopes.” It was a blue-collar congregation and they’ve had a glorious past but, like many mainline congregations, an uncertain future. Barbara Melosh (formerly a college prof at George Mason) tells her story of trying her best and, finally, realizing the relationship was not a good fit. None of her fresh energy and church growth plans and outreach programs worked; she could not, as she puts it, drag them into a future they did not want.

I get choked up reading even the back cover which says,

Yet while the congregation failed to change itself, Melosh notes, it succeeded in changing her. Simply put, it made her a pastor.

I know pastors whose ministries seem not to bear much earth-shaking fruit, but they love their flock. I know some who captain large and effective institutions, but have little affection for their place or their people. It seems to me — and this good story captures it — that learning to love and serve real people in a real congregation in a real place is most of what a pastor does. Sure, there are programs and worship services and classes and meetings, and it all matters. But this vocation of mediating God’s presence through affectionate solidarity with those God gives to you, being a pastor, is what congregations most need. It is touching, human work, which is why this book, even though some of it is out and out hilarious, is heartbreaking as well.

Richard Lischer (who wrote his own remarkable memoir of this sort, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery) says Melosh offers “an unflinchingly honest account of how one little group of Saints and Sinners transformed a novice into a pastor.”

It is, Lischer insists:

“Pastoral writing at its best.”

By the way, those of us who are not pastors will enjoy this as well. As Dorothy Bass of the Valparaiso Project says, “…parishioners will see with fresh eyes their own strong role in embodying God’s presence in the particular places where God’s people gather and serve.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching & Worship – Year C Vol 1      Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching & Worship – Year C Vol 2 edited by Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby (Westminster John Knox Press) $45.00 each

What a grand, lectionary-based set of resources for preaching and worship! In a way, this is the next generation of Feasting on the Word and represents the best thinking on Biblical exegesis, homiletics, personal and social application, all offered with preaching commentary and worship planning ideas for each lectionary reading of the given season.  The contributions are wide and broad, with dozens of writers from bunches of denominations, from Evangelical Free and the Christian Reformed Church to the more standard Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, UCC, and Episcopalian. There are African American exegetes and Latina preachers and Baptist liturgists. What a fun and helpful array of prayerful ideas from stimulating voices.

When we first introduced Volume 1 (Advent through the season of Epiphany to Transfiguration Sunday) we explained more, but allow me to just say this: it is called Connections in part to capture two things: the various contributors working on the lections each week try to show the connections of that Biblical portion to the whole of Scripture, hearing connections between this text and others in Holy Scripture. And, it attempts to offer ideas for making connections between this ancient Word and the world of today. So when it says “connections” it means it — connection the lectionary text to the bigger story of the Bible and connection the worship to real life.  Surely one of the best worship aids and liturgical resources in many a year, to be celebrated as a publishing win in 2018. Cheers!

“Here is a resource that puts hundreds and hundreds of focused scholars in the preacher’s study, ready to help shovel the diamonds of Scripture for the Sunday sermon. Every congregation in the country should buy their pastor a complete set, both for their own good and the good of the world.” —Barbara Brown Taylor

Given the deep crisis we face in church and in society, the recovery of the biblical text in all its glorious truth-telling is an urgent task for us preachers. For much too long the text has been neglected through complacency, timidity, and embarrassment. Now is the time of recovery of the text. There are few resources as useful for such a recovery as Connections. It is interpretive work done by our best interpreters, skilled in our best methods, grounded in deep faith, and linked to lived reality. This resource is an immense treasure that invites boldness and imagination in our shared work of proclamation.” —Walter Brueggemann

“In this day when potential listeners are biblically and theologically untutored, distracted and disconnected, Connections is just what the doctor ordered for contemporary preaching. Connections is well named, for it equips preachers to preach sermons that connect with both Scripture and contemporary life, sermons that are both faithful to their biblical contexts and fitting to the contexts of their congregations in the world. Connections provides an antidote to biblical lectures with little acquaintance with contemporary life as well as to strings of stories that lack biblical grounding. We owe the publisher, editors, and authors of this series a debt of gratitude for the gift of this resource for preaching.” —Alyce M. McKenzie Professor of Preaching and Worship,  Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin Lauren F. Winner (Yale University Press) $28.00 This is certainly one of the most thoughtful and grand books of 2018 and it is one I am reading so carefully that I am not yet finished! It deserves savoring and pondering. Lauren is a gracious, at times luminous writer and those that love her memoirs will recognize her voice in some of these lovely and poignant stories. Yet, this is a different sort of book (it is on Yale University Press, after all.) More scholarly, more philosophical, she goes to great lengths to be clear about her argument.

The first chapter is not quite tedious but it is meticulous.  It is exceptionally helpful as she explains what “characteristic” damage is; that is, sins and distortions that are unique to and consonant with and intrinsic to a certain good thing. She gives lots of examples of what she means and what she doesn’t mean, but the upshot is an insightful reminder that some things, even good things, carry with them immense possibility to cause damage, damage unique to their very goodness.

And therein is the genius and profundity of this book, a book unlike any other I know. Many these recent decades are talking about not only inner disciplines but distinctively Christian practices. (Her Mudhouse Sabbath — oh, please tell me you know it! — helped popularize this very language and orientation.) But, to be blunt, can these very practices harm people? Can the joys and healing of, say, receiving communion or saying prayers backfire, so to speak? As one reviewer asks, “Does the church ever hurt those it means to help?”

Here is how Alan Jacobs puts it:

Thoughtful Christians often commend a return to ancient practices of faith as a means of healing spiritual disorders. But what if those practices are themselves damaged? This is the discomfiting question Lauren Winner raises in this curious and remarkable book — a literary and historical meditation on damaged gifts that remain, nevertheless, gifts.

Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality Gerald McDermott (BakerAcademic) $22.99 We have written from time to time about what I call “the spirituality of the ordinary,”  When we set up book displays we usually have a dozen titles tucked in among the spiritual disciplines and contemplative guides and mystics that extol finding God in the mundane. Well, this does that, I suppose, but it is more of a theology of the spirituality of the ordinary. It is warm and inviting but meaty. McDermott is a splendid writer, the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson (at Samford University) and here he sees — not unlike Jonathan Edwards who he has studied deeply and draws upon here — in the ordinary stuff of daily life signs and signals of the Trinune God.

Peter Leithart wrote a year or so ago a book that trod similar holy ground in Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience and I think I enjoyed Everyday Glory even more. He offers  what one reviewer (Matthew Olver of Nashotah House) a “beauty-saturated theology of creation.” It is designed to help us reject the disenchantment of modernity (which is where the book starts) — why we have failed to experience a robust revelation of God in creation. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in Edwards’s sort of natural theology, this book will help you pay attention to life — all of life, from science to history, sex to sports — through the lens of the glory of God who is revealed in creation. It’s a great book and highly recommended.

Serving the Church, Reaching the World: Essays in Honour of Don Carson edited by Richard Cunningham (IVP-UK) $15.00  I know his friends call him Don, but most evangelical book buyers who know his vast, important body of work call him D.A. We sold books with him once and didn’t know how to address him, so I called him “Dr. Carson.” As you can see from the funny spelling of “Honour” this is a British book. Technically, it came out in England in late 2017 but it was 2018 until we discovered it here in the States. It is a collection of essays offered in appreciation (a festschrift) for D.A. Carson and brings together a select group of theologians, Bible scholars, mission leaders, seminary thinkers, and those who do apologetics and preaching to offer good pieces. It isn’t a well-known book which is why I want to give a special shout out here as it is a great collection of articles and essays that you won’t find anywhere else.

I don’t agree with everything this brilliant man writes and his Gospel Coalition tribe isn’t exactly our own, but anybody who cares about thoughtful, culturally-relevant, Biblically-faithful, solid stuff should pay attention to those who have stood beside him or on his shoulders.  Here are some who have contributed to Serving the Church, Reaching the World — William Edgar, Kirsten Birkett, Timothy Keller, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and the editor, Richard Cunningham, who is an ordained Anglican ministry (in the Church of England) and is the Director of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF.)

Topics include (among others) “Winning Hearts and Minds in a Secular Age”, Tim Keller on “University Missions Today” and Packer on “Preacher and Theologian: The Ideal Christian Communicator.” Piper has a powerful essay about service and suffering and there’s several potent chapters on truth, apologetics, ecumenical cooperation. Jazz-man and WTS prof Bill Edgar has a strong essay called “The Silence of God.”  This is a fascinating, little known anthology and we want to celebrate it, even as it celebrates an author of over 50 books, D.A. Carson. Kudos.

Kingdom Collaborators: Eight Signature Practices of Leaders Who Turn the World Upside Down Reggie McNeal (IVP) $16.00  This is another great book that comes from IVP’s Praxis imprint and we are thrilled to say we stock them all, including a big stack of this one. We have long appreciated Reggie’s upbeat, stimulating (but exceptionally well-informed and thoughtful) approach to missional church and Kingdom living.  We want to honor this as one of the books we were excited about this year, in part because it is practical and useful for church and ministry leaders — not “running over the same old ground” as Pink Flloyd puts it in “Wish You Were Here” — but also because, well, did you see what I did there? This is a book for church and parish leaders but it is not mostly or exclusively about the local church but about the reign of God in the world God loves. That is, it is about the culture, about the Kingdom coming in all of life, about entrepreneurial visions and world-changing efforts to make a difference. Do you want to be that kind of a church leader, equipping your people to serve their city, to care for their neighborhoods, to represent God’s grace in various institutions of your locality?

This book works on a number of levels. It is energizing and visionary, of course. And in a way it is a sequel to his Kingdom Come which is passionate and upbeat about the reality of the Kingdom of God.  But it is also about leadership and it is about collaboration, a matter to which we don’t pay enough attention, I think. And it is about a certain sort of audacious collaboration — not just with other leaders in your church, not even with other churches, but other community leaders, and other community institutions. This isn’t new for most mainline folks, but for more evangelical folk, it may be a stretch. I think he makes a great case for this and invites us to new forms of worldly holiness and healthy collaboration.

Just for instance, listen to this testimonial by Lee Clamp, a Baptist woman who was part of a McNeal-inspired consultation:  “Do you long to see broken lives restored? New life is the drive of Kingdom Collaborators. Reggie’s passion for people is felt on every page, and he lives what he writes. He has helped us to birth a statewide coalition focused on awakening the faith-based community to bring hope to every child through serving our local schools. Be warned―reading Kingdom Collaborators may be hazardous to your comfortable life. It will change your status quo, muddy your hands, and free you from a predictable life!”

As Susan Hewitt of UpWorks in St. Paul Minnesota writes,

The transformation of a community begins with the transformation of an individual. Whether one is a leader, collaborator, or follower, Reggie provides kingdom thinking to help unlearn traditions that are hindering our witness and work and relearn biblical principles that will unleash God’s people. I believe this inspired book will help Christians join with God in his kingdom agenda, accelerating improvement on societal issues that is so desperately needed.

Here is how another United Methodist leader puts it:

Perhaps, for such a time as this, Jesus is changing our minds as it relates to understanding the call of all people. Perhaps now is the time that God is calling kingdom leaders to agitate for the kingdom, knowing that the agitation and advancement of God’s kingdom is done with collective force and efforts. Kingdom Collaborators is the book to arrest your heart, expand your understanding, and prod you to move into God’s calling no matter if you are clergy or congregant! — Aleze M. Fulbright, director of leadership development, Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church

A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today Bonnie Kristian (FaithWords) $14.99 This has been a book that I’ve talked about when we’ve been out at events but it is tricky to explain. It is charming, wonderfully written, upbeat and fun and yet I’d suggest it is deadly serious. It is about the stream of Christian orthodoxy which is “wide and deep but most Christians only swim in their own little pool.” There is more than one viable option to unbelief and to understand this is absolutely critical. It is important as we learn to get along with the body of Christ and it is important as we invite seekers and the disillusioned to sustainable faith when they’ve left the one sort of faith expression they thought was normative.

A Flexible Faith might be found somewhere in the middle, then, between Richard Foster’s must-read Streams of Living Water and Brian McLaren’s clever and feisty A Generous Orthodoxy.

Kristian says she has written for the convinced and the confused alike. I”d agree —  if you know what you belief and why you belief it, it doesn’t hurt to learn about others who see things differently and if you are confused this will not only say “welcome to the club” but will lay out some options and offer resources for finding some resolution to questions of faith and practice.

Here is how it works. I will be brief, but I could write a long time about various stuff she writes here.  There are two things Kristian does: first, she does a survey of various views of several topics. (That is, for instance, she’ll show both sides of an issue saying some Christian believe this and other Christians belief that. She tips her hand and says why.  In this regard, this is a nice handbook to what the primary views are of everything from God’s providence to Christian involvement in war; from what the Lord’s Supper means to the ethics of LGTBQ sexual relationships. In every other chapter she shows that some Christians think one way but others another way about this or that theological, church, and discipleship question. If all she did was offer this fair-minded survey we’d have much to be thankful for.But the other concern of this book isn’t just to struggle with abstract doctrines and social issues, laying out this and that viewpoint and comparing those that hold to this Bible text to those that emphasize that Bible text.  No, this is about really appreciating each other, so she has these rather wild and interesting interviews with all kinds of unique Christian folks.

What do I mean? Here’s you’ll find fascinating conversations with a member of a Benedictine monastery; you’ll learn about Quakerism. There’s an interview with a member of the Bruderhof (who published Plough) and you’ll meet a Messianic Jew. From Randy Woodley (a Native American follower of Jesus) to a Q& A with Dr. Simon Chan, a Pentecostal intellectual to a gent from the Coptic Orthodox Church, you’ll be enchanted to hear about so many different expressions of faith. From those who hold a common purse to the Amish to a Seventh Adventist to one who is part of a Latin American base community, you’ll discover so many different ways to be faithful. You will have to re-think, at least for a bit, what it means to follow Jesus today. Perhaps you will become more generous towards others. Perhaps you will become a bit more flexible. Who knows, perhaps it will be a life-line for somebody you know. It’s a fun read and would be great to work through with a book club.

Come Let Us Eat Together: Sacraments and Christian Unity edited by George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez (IVP Academic) $26.00  This is one of the books I was most happy to see this year and sad that I haven’t found time to study it much. It is one of the annual books IVP Academic releases — thanks be to God for their publishing savvy and integrity! — that comes from an annual theology conference at Wheaton College. This book nicely offers the papers and panels and keynotes and sermons from the previous years event on unity within the Body of Christ, especially around our differing view of sacraments. (By the way: last year’s Wheaton conference was on Marilyn Robinson, so the forthcoming volume that IVP will release will be among the most eagerly anticipated books of 2019!)

Come Let us Eat Together is not as fun and funny and curiously charming as the above mentioned invitation to flexible faith, and it may not be a big seller, which is all the more reason we want to honor it here, now. We dare not be glib about the brokenness of Christ’s church and perhaps studying these chapters by classic Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians, who consider what it means to proclaim the unity of the body of Christ in light of the sacraments, will help.

These essays offer unflinching honest, surprising humor, keen insight, and possible ways forward as they wrestle with hard questions about why Christian are and remain divided over what should unite us: the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper .                                                                              James R Payton, Redeemer University College

Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith Gregory Spencer (Leafwood) $15.99  This is one of the great, notable books of 2018 and because it is on a smaller publishing house my fear is that it may not be widely known. I did a long review of it last summer at BookNotes and explained it my admiration for the author and detailed the nature of the book.

Here is one small part of that review:

On the back cover of Reframing the Soul we get a glimpse of what Spencer is up to when he tells of “four essentials of the soul.”

 

  • Remembering the past with gratitude
  • Anticipating the future with hope
  • Dwelling within ourselves in peace
  • Engaging with others in love

There are the four main units of this book. After several opening chapters he gets to these four chief tasks (remembering, anticipating, dwelling, engaging) but the opening four chapters are worth the price of the book. And they are memorable – “Every Word a Window,” “There Is No Immaculate Perception,” “Order, Order, Everywhere,” and “When You Frame Your Life, What’s in the Picture?”

Then Spencer opens up the discussions about how new words can reframe and set us free from less than life-giving, less-than-adequate perceptions. Please note, this is not some technique like “neuro-linguistic programming” nor some name-it-and-claim it nonsense about positive confession. It is wise and nuanced council about reframing our stories based on how we choose to tell those stories, inspired, as we can be, by Biblical truths and spiritual discernment.

I know some of our customers rightly adore the book To Be Told: God Invites You to Co-Author Your Future by Dan Allender, who also reminds us to reframe our past and present to get to a renewed future. This new Reframing the Soul book by Gregory Spencer is worth having and highly recommended for those wanting a very impressive read about “navigating reality with grace and truth.” And hope.

Sacred Questions: 365 Days of Responding to God Kellye Fabian (NavPress) $22.99 Every year there are very nice devotionals and some years there are extraordinary ones released. Certainly 2018 was a banner year, with a small one from the late Eugene Peterson on key Old Testament texts (Every Step an Arrival: A 90-Day Devotional for Exploring God’s Word; Waterbrook Press; $14.99)  and, of course, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs by Tim and Kathy Keller (Viking; $20.00) which many folks used all year long, just like they used their wonderful book devotional on Psalms the year before.

I liked Kellye Fabian’s in part because it was arranged with so many good questions, inviting a pondering about the text and its application. It isn’t quite lectio but it does invite readers into this practice of a close reading and attending to questions that arise from the text. I think this stimulates the mind and enlarges the heart as readers “learn how to partner with God and live the full, free, and other-centered life Jesus offers.”  Ms. Fabian holds a certificate of spiritual formation through Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center and has studied with Scot McNight at Northern Seminary. This is a handsome hardback, just shy of 500 pages.

Honey From the Rock: Daily Devotions from Young Kuyper Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press) $39.99  I very much want to honor this remarkable new release — sweet devotional meditations from the brilliant and legendary Dutch theologian cum social reformer cum statesman that, as far as I know, have never before been translated into English. Like the other big, hefty, well-crafted and helpfully annotated volumes coming out in the Kuyper Translation Project, it should be considered a publishing event to have this content released to the English-speaking world. And what a treasure this is, revealing again a side of himself that may not be as obvious in his theological work or his cultural analysis. (The Kuyper Translation Project, capably overseen by Melvin Flikkema & Jordan Ballor, has released oversized hardbacks of Kuyper’s work on public theology, common grace, politics, Islam, and has volumes coming out on topics such as education, economics, and justice.) Still, Kuyper religiously wrote weekly meditations, even in his most harried days as Prime Minister. He continued this practice up until his death in 1920. These newly released reflections, freshly translated by James De Jong, arose from the 1870s or so. (They were originally published and beloved a century ago in two volumes in Dutch.)

Honey From the Rock is to be celebrated because of its warm piety (think of his wonderful collection of meditations Near Unto God) but this release is of historical value, too, because, as the widely-read Albert Mohler puts it, “Imagine opening a collection of meditations by the  young Augustine, a young Martin Luther, or John Calvin… Here are the devotional thoughts of one of the most significant Protestant thinkers of the last 150 years from the most formative period of his life. This treasure is both timeless and timely.”

Of course, Richard Mouw has a blurb on the back, saying:

I have been reading Kuyper’s Near Unto God collection of meditations for decades — so much so that I wore out my first copy. He is my favorite devotional writer. And now this wonderful collection of 200 more. I hope all who have come to appreciate Kuyper’s writings on politics and culture in recent years will now taste the spiritual sweetness of Honey from the Rock.

One word of protest: this book should not have been published as an oversized, expensive hardback (although it is very nice.) Who wants to hold an immense volume the size of a dictionary in their morning or evening devotions? Who can shell out this kind of cash for a devotional? I suppose Lexham or the Translation Society wanted this to handsomely fit on a shelf with the other oversized Kuyper hardbacks, but this is a foolish mistake. Can we award it next year as the best paperback re-issue with a handsome, inexpensive cover? This lovely book is worth marketing widely and it is bad stewardship to not make it affordable and widely distributed. For those who already see themselves as Kuyperians, though, Honey from the Rock is a worthy, wonderful investment and I hope and pray that it sells well.

Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness Michael Card (IVP) $16.00 . Mike is a good, good guy, a thoughtful poet, and good writer, a fabulous singer-songwriter, recording artist, and serious scholar of the Scriptures. This book came out the last weeks of December and we wondered if anyone would notice it amidst the best-sellers and holiday glitz. A number of our local friends picked it up and more than one person raved about it within days! It is nice study of God’s identity, beyond what we can imagine, let alone express in human words. But, as Card explains, “Scripture uses one particular word to describe the distinctiveness of God’s character: the Hebrew word hesed.”

This is part semi-academic study, part devotional, part memoir of how this author came to be so deeply moved by this deep, multi-dimensional meaning of hesed and of the great God who reflects such loving fidelity. Of course, he helpfully reminds us that the fullness of hesed is embodied in the incarnation of Jesus, the God of hesed made flesh.

Can we be transformed as we ourselves become marked by compassion, mercy, faithfulness?  This book will help. Inexpressible is a beautiful, powerful read. Kudos.

An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation Martin Laird (Oxford University Press) $18.95  I have not read this yet but many people I deeply trust have commended Laird’s first two, Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. These mixed metaphors and allusive titles should be a clue that these rich and deep. The handsome covers makes you want to hold these small hardbacks and take in their beauty. Blurbs on this much anticipated work are by Sarah Caokley, Carol Zaleski, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who commends it for resisting “verbiage, mystification and sentimentality”) and who says it is “both intensely challenging and enriching.”

Rowan Williams continues:

His writing on this subject is simply in a different league of seriousness from most other books on ‘spiritual’ practice.

The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us From Drowning Aaron Niequist (Waterbrook) $19.99  Books on contemplative practices and monastic spiritual disciplines and a more centered sort of spirituality keep coming out and our shelves in that category are bulging. There’s a lot of good stuff on various kinds of spiritual practices and many are wonderful. Some are more Christ-centered and Biblically-oriented then others, but many, many help people focus on their interior lives and find God’s presence in the midst of their daily lives.  However, every now and then one comes along that seems truly fresh, different, passionate, and which resonates with me. This is one of those.

I think this is one of the most interesting books I read all year, and one I grew increasingly enamored with. You can read my previous comments an at older BookNotes, but I’ll just note that he uses the “river” motif, and it is a healing River, “ushering in the healing and restoration of all things.” Jesus called this river “The Kingdom of God” and invited us to enter it. Niequist says that Jesus’s call to “follow me” could be interpreted as an invitation to learn to swim in this Eternal Current.  The invitation is participation.

That is what he means by a “practice-based faith” which is more than merely proper belief. We must be swept into God’s redemptive work in our lives and in the world. “We can move from the dry riverbed of static faith into the gushing Current of a practice-based faith.” So, yes, this engaging and creatively written book offers a vision and a set of practices for deeper discipleship, lived, experienced faith, spiritual formation that goes beyond some tribal sort of certainty and into the bigger mystery of belonging to Christ and being involved in His work.

I like this trans-rational (not-irrational, of course) view, that faith is more than intellectual ideas or cognitive assent. And, I am glad that Niequist always remind us that the River is for the sake of the world. HIs notion that church is a gymnasium (chapters 4 and 5) that affirms and trains us as we gather (and so, chapter 6 is called “Sunday is Not the Main Event”) is worth the price of the book. I’m fond of any book that has a chapter on ecumenism (“We Need Everybody”) and community (“We Can’t Do It Alone.”) His showing these important insights in this creative a language that moves increasingly outward towards mission is right on. His reminder of the role of imagination as we “reintegrate everything” is a beautiful benediction of a provocative and energizing book. I hope you, too, find it one of the more stimulating titles you’ve read in quite a while.

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World A.J. Swoboda (Brazos Press) $19.99 This is another one that I hope you saw our long review at BookNotes. Even as I was describing it back then, I knew it was a contender for one of the very Best Books of 2018. It is comprehensive, interesting, theological, Biblical, and practical. It offers insight about keeping Sabbath, of course, but also offers broader guidance about the necessity of (our our reluctance to) rest. Importantly, it moves to how such nay-saying to busyness — “ceasing” is a word Marva Dawn used in her late ’80s, seminal Keeping the Sabbath Wholly — is, as the title says and he really means, subversive. There are idols and bad habits and dysfunctions in the world and our health and our very lives (not to mention our Kingdom loyalties) depends on resisting them. There is great power in saying no and keeping Sabbath and living within its rhythms can undo the grip of consumerism and workaholism and pride and violent.

This is a topic that is urgent, a book that is exceptional, and if you don’t have time to read it, you know you need it. We think that Subversive Sabbath is is one of our favorite books of the year, one we are happy to commend and that we hope is enduring among the other good books on the topic.  Thanks to A.J. for doing so much work on this and for being so artful and inspiring as a writer. Good job.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age Alan Noble (IVP) $16.00  In just a few weeks we will finally get to meet Alan Noble, a professor of English and editor of the very cool Christ and Pop Culture online journal, who will be speaking at the CCO’s annual Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh. I will applaud him personally for writing one of the best books of 2018 and thank him for creating a book that became one of store’s best sellers. It’s the kind of thoughtful but readable book we are so glad to sell. He has written for the Atlantic, Vox, Buzzfeed, Christianity Today, First Things and The Gospel Coalition. We’ve been facebook friends for years, and he really gets around. I say this not only to assure you he’s a good good guy, but to suggest that even though this is a critique of our hot-wired, fast-paced, digital lives that yield distraction and worse, he is no “Benedict Option” advocate, not one who has escaped the world of media and popular culture. He is trying hard to that noble view of being in-but-not-of as Jesus said.

Yet, he’s astute — more than most — about the pressures of modernity and the temptations of the modern age (and he shares candidly about this in the book in ways that will make you nod your head.) In this he has learned from Charles Taylor and the first half of this book “The Distracted, Secular Age” draws on Taylor and adds his own unique concerns about the barriers of endless distraction and the confusions of our identity (and what Charles Taylor calls “the buffered self.”) He says we are all seeking better visions of fullness, and to this complicated world we must bear a disruptive witness.  Part Two shows us how to do that.

There are habits to disrupt the distraction that we must learn and practice and these must be embodied in our own lives, encouraged in our churches, and that should shape our cultural participation (our tone and texture and style and attitude, not just what content we do or don’t promote.)  In many ways, McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is a truism we must grapple with and Noble helps us think that through and equips us to “disrupt our society’s deep-rooted assumptions and point beyond them to the transcendent grace and beauty of Jesus.”

This is a book well worth reading carefully and slowly and talking about with others. I hope you can find a few good and honest friends to work through the distractions in our lives and how to disrupt them. This isn’t a cheap “just say no” to technology or busyness or secularism or a scolding to be more bold for Christ. It is a deep level study of the forces and ethos and practices of our technological age and a good, healthy, redemptive framework for standing a chance at not be done in by it all. At the end of the day (although I am a bit reluctant to sell short a nearly 200 page book with a quick summary) this invites us to slow down and pay attention and ponder and consider things. As we learn to attend to the world around us and read and pray and think, we can see that transcendence is more plausible than the secular age admits, more available than our fast-paced lives seem to permit. So settle down, folks, resist the disruption. Along with Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath practices [see above], and armed with this insightful cultural analysis, we really can speak truth in a a distracted age.

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $26.99  I regularly promote books from denominational perspectives and faith traditions and experiences that are not my own.  Obviously — what bookseller only promotes the books that fully reflects their own denomination and life?  We here at Hearts & Minds, are, in fact, deeply grateful for the opportunity to read widely, taking in books and insights and strengths from others with whom we may disagree.  I don’t know why I write this, now, leading in to our celebration of Diana’s good book because there is very little I disagree with here. It’s just that she is situated as a nationally-known critic of establishment religion, hard on conservative denominations, and always prophetic even in challenging her own progressive Episcopalian faith communities. She pushes churches to embrace new ways of thinking about faith that are sensible to the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd and insists that an inclusive, generous faith is not only most reflective of the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth but also most effective in resonating with the post-Christian milieu of our days. I don’t always see it like that, but I read anything she rights and am grateful for her work, her words, her friendship.

Which is where I’m going with this: I am deeply grateful for this book, Grateful, and am glad to honor it as one of the Best Books of 2018. I certainly was one I enjoy immensely, even if it tweaked me in hard ways, in painful places. How can we be grateful in these awful days of political divisiveness and social injustice and a President I cannot be grateful for. When black men are gunned down by white policeman, when otherwise good Christian people stimulate hateful attitudes towards refugees and the homeless, when the planet groans so loudly even as we cut funding for agencies designed to steward our natural resources, when marriages fail and cancer strikes, how in the hell are we supposed to be grateful?  I resist glib bromides of counting your blessings and Hallmark sentiments about serenity. I know it is extraordinarily radical, but I find John Piper’s Lewis-esque call to joy somehow amiss, unless accompanied (as it often is in Piper) by tears of lament.

And so, I am grateful for Grateful as it is one of the few authors who I would trust to walk us through this joy-producing, generous, beautiful spiritual discipline.  Diana starts the book noting that she wrote this in part as a way to cope with her own frantic worry over the election of Donald Trump and her horror at the casual way some accept his jokes about sexual assault, off-handed racism, and celebration of greed and glitz. As a historian, she was well equipped to get us beyond “cheap gratitude” (a brilliant line she offers in the prologue.) As one skilled in the social sciences, she uses as another point of departure two seemingly contradictory recent surveys of the mood of Americans and I appreciate her blend of personal anecdotes, historical insight, and up-to-date social analysis. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks has become my favorite book on the subject in part because of this big picture lens and how she moves us towards the civic implications of a conscientious commitment to thankfulness.

We are not alone in honoring this interesting and helpful book.  There is a lovely blurb on the back by Shauna Niequist, a thoughtful evangelical, James Martin, the best-selling and widely respected Jesuit, “Science Mike” McHargue (who calls it “a calming voice in raging cultural seas.”) Her friend Brian McLaren loves it, as does the non-Christian writer Marianne Williamson (who says, alluding to Julian, “her words are a gentle but fierce reminder that on some eternal level , all is well.”

Listen to Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, co-author of The Pentecost Paradigm and senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York:

Grateful will soften the lens through which you look at the people in your life, and the whirling world around us all. It’s a spoonful of honey to help us transform the ‘hard’ in our lives into wisdom, compassion, and even resistance.

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much Ashley Hales IVP) $16.00 Anyone who has heard any of the conversations about James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love (a nice one-volume summary of his bigger “cultural liturgy” trilogy) or the wonderful book by Tish Warren (Liturgy of the Ordinary) you will immediately resonate with a book that says, in bold type on the back, “Places Form Our Loves.” That is, the ordinary, daily stuff of our material lives, our comings and goings, form in us habits and consequently values and dispositions, which reinforce a certain kind of living, a lifestyle. For better or worse, we are what we love and our loves, our desires, our imaginations of the good life, the stories we’ve been conscripted into, inform and shape our daily life. And our view of discipleship and service and church and God. All this stuff — our views of faith and life — are what the scholars call pre-theoretical. Our hearts, informed by stories and actual landscapes, shape our minds. We don’t “think” our way to holiness, as I’ve heard Smith say.

So. Given all this — Smith tells how the world’s values shape our desires by the cultural liturgies we imbibe and Warren shows how worship liturgies in her church help her find God in the ordinary stuff of daily life — how does Ashely Hales fit in? Why recall all this wordy backstory?

Well, Hales herself rehearses just a bit of this and one can see that she’s done good homework in thinking deeply about the sociology of our times, how hearts and habits work, how somehow the places we find ourselves shape us. She is wiser than most and careful about her consideration of her themes. As one reviewer put it, her writing is fierce, but has another put it, she writes with “poignant clarity.”

And she has a sense of wit about it since she did a few promo videos about this book from inside her Southern California min-van. Ha.

What do tract homes, strip malls, commuter culture and what Joni Mitchell called “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” have to do with our desire for God’s holiness in our lives? How do we see God’s ways — including solidarity with the poor and being agents of a multi-ethnic Kingdom — when one lives in the suburbs?  How does this space —  literally, the built environment, the culture of habits and lifestyles — effect our interior lives and our public discipleship? Hales helps us explore all of this and more. And did I say she does it with grace and wit?

She is a mother of four and a pastor’s wife. She has a PhD in English ffrom Edinburgh, so she’s no simple armchair critic. It is pretty easy for cynical hipsters or old-time hippies or Wendell Berry-esque back to the landers or even what David Brooks calls BOBOs (“bourgeois bohemians”) to criticize the bland if busy suburbs. Tons of films righteously mock the alleged emptiness of the ‘burbs. I love the hyper-critical James Howard Kunstler (you have to read The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere) but I’m glad to see an evangelical author writing about holiness start with the headline, “A Story To Find Home in the Geography of Nowhere.”

Can we do that, find true home in this odd sort of placeless place?  And if so, what does holiness and healthy spirituality look like in this “land of too much”?

(And might it connect to the really heavy themes presented in one of my favorite books Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Brian Walsh & Steven Bouma-Prediger which explores how some people, even of those of great means, may have houses but not homes.)

Ashely Hales is a fine guide into these questions and any book that gets us thinking in these ways is deserving of a ‘burg-sized award. Her chapter titles are exceptionally interesting. Her footnotes are extraordinary — she quotes Scott Russel Saunders’ Staying Put and Marlena Graves’ A Beautiful Disaster and that great book by Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger called The Year of Small Things and Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak and Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place. She deserves another award just for that. She has a fine eye for detail in a well told story and she obviously knows some of the best Christian writers with whom she is in dialogue. The result is a feast of a book, helpful, wise, challenging, inspiring. It is one of my favorite books fo 2018.

Hales isn’t the first to write from a Christian perspective about this incarnational sense of place in the ‘burbs. Over ten years ago Dave Goeetz (who has a lovely blurb on the back) wrote Death By Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul and Albert Hsu wrote the very good The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty. They are both valuable and we recommend them, but this new one by Hales is by far the best evangelical book yet about this world of SUVs and soccer moms, of back decks and cul-de-sacs, of granite countertops and gated communities. And through it all she invites us to reflect on our own brokenness, to find healing and hope wherever we find ourselves, to seek God’s holiness and serve Christ’s kingdom of justice and reconciliation. As Seth Haines put it, “Ashley is the rare sort of writer, imaginative yet concrete, prophetic yet gentle. She only cuts where she can bring healing.”  This is a very interesting little book.

For a Better World: Abraham Kuyper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Discipleship for the Common Good Brant Micah Himes (Pickwick Publications) $28.00  I just grinned when I saw this, got so excited, because many folks know Bonhoeffer but fewer know the Dutch theologian, journalist, politician, educator who lead a revival in late 1800s Holland under the banner of the Lordship of Christ over all of life and creating a pluralistic culture where all worldviews are treated fairly. His piety and justice and structural (“archetectonic” some say) drove this giant of a man, and yet few know him. We can be glad for Brant Himes (a Humanities prof at Azusa Pacific and a managing editor for the theological journal Resonance) for pulling of this judicious study. Ken Wytsma (of the Justice Conferences) says For a Better Worldliness “is one of the most intriguing books I’ve run across in a long time.”

Rich Mouw wrote a lovely introduction reminding us that the very word “discipleship” means different things to different folks (and Kuyper didn’t use the word much, as such) so Hime’s helps us all learn a bit more about what the word might entail and what disciple may mean — along the way we all learn about following Jesus, about public life, about the common good. Kuyper served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Bonhoeffer famously inhabited a dank prison cell, so they led very different lives, on different sides of the experience of power and prestige. (Both visited America, by the way: Kuyper was hosted a the White House and then travelled among Dutch immigrant communities after lecturing at Princeton and Bonhoeffer studied in New York but worshiped in a black church in Harlem, which was pivotal for him.)

For anyone interested in how devout faith, learned theology, and a robust understanding of public life can effect our discipleship, this rare is well worth working through.  For those of us who are fans of either Kuyper on Bonhoeffer, it is a must.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, And Loving the Bible Again RachelHeld Evans (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 I loved this book for a bunch of reasons and knew that I’d want to recommend it to those who want a good read about a woman coping with the difficulties in the Bible, the violence and genocide and brutality and confusion. She was raised as a super-duper evangelical, was a leader in her youth ministry, a witness in her high school, and happily enjoyed the Bible that was such a big part of her families life. As she grew into different phases of how she used the Bible, things slowly eroded until in her twenties she became disillusioned and frustrated. She has told some of this story elsewhere and she tells it well. For anyone interested in faith development (or re-development) her stories about leaving fundamentalism, about coping with the Bibles teachings about women, about finding a church more suited to her longings, her several books will provide insight and solace. And they are interesting and funny.

But we must ask — she her self asks — where is this all heading? What do we do with the Bible even if we try to read it in a less legalistic manner, if we become friends with helpful critics (such as, say, Pete Enns, whose own works have influenced Rachel a bit.) What if we love the stories and still want to hear God’s voice through them? 

She is haunted by God, loves the Bible, can’t get away from her sense that it is deeply true and has a claim on her. How do you fall in love with the Bible after you’ve deconstructed and maybe discarded some of it?

Inspired is the inspired story of her journey back to loving the Bible again. She has some clever and creative paraphrases of a few sections of Scripture that some will love. She shares plenty of memoir-ish narrations, stories about her own ups and downs and those of us who like that kind of reflective auto-biographical writing will love it. And then there is the heart of the book — nicely and honestly written, weaving between Biblical exegesis, Biblical storytelling and memoir — where Evans explores various themes within the Holy Book. These have chapter headings such as Origin Stories, Deliverance Stories, War Stories, Wisdom Stories, Resistance Stories, Gospel Stories, Fish Stories, and Church Stories.  There are all very, very interesting and really helpful, especially for those needing some handles on how to properly appreciate what is going on in the text — no, what is really going on. 

You can decide if it is adequately faithful, if her comments bear good fruit. She does not disguise her anguish about some of the awful stuff, and for that we should all be glad — this is, finally, I think, respectful to God’s Word, taking it seriously. If one is not troubled by some of the stuff we see in the Bible, there is something wrong with us, she says, and I think she is on to something. But, agree or not with every comment, snarky or earnest, pained or joyful, critical or grateful, there is a lot here for anyone who loves the Scriptures and loves to hear how other people understand them. This was one of my favorite books of the year. 

The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel Tremper Longman III (BakerAcademic) $32.99 Tremper Longman is one of those scholars who can write popular level guides like How to Read Proverbs and partner with his psychologist pal Dan Allender offering sturdy Biblical content for titles like God Loves Sex. And then he does these books that, for another scholar, might be an admirable life’s work. That Longman has other such major works is remarkable and this one, surely, deserves accolades for one of the best books in the field of Old Testament studies published this past year.

This book is comprehensive, readable, smart and faithful. He examines both cultural and canonical evidence to show wisdom’s enduring theological significance. In our postmodern time, he observes, this is particularly valuable and it is an urgent task to recover a sense of Biblical wisdom as a theological category. My deeper interest was piqued in the preface when he suggests that he (unlike authors I appreciate like William Brown, for instance) doesn’t think it is helpful to designate a certain genre of OT writings as “wisdom” literature as such. Wow. It is, to put in more simply than I should, less a literary genre and more of a theological virtue. Which is to say you find wisdom in places other than Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Others rave, too, so I think I’m on solid ground award this; scholars like Carol Kaminski say it is written with “masterful elegance” and John Goldingay says Longman’s book is “balanced and informative.” This demands to be placed on your bookshelf next to Old Testament Wisdom Literature the grand book by Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd. Highly recommended.

Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture Alastair Roberts & Andrew Wilson (Crossway) $17.99  I am always on the look-out for books that are rooted in serious scholarship but are not aimed at the academic guild. I am always on the look-out for books that help Bible readers, Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, preachers and teachers see the inter-connection between Old and New Testaments, using what some call the “historical redemptive” method of capturing not just the echoes and allusions between texts but in themes and motifs as the Biblical drama unfolds in a series of promises and fulfillments. This little book, by authors with PhDs from prestigious places, who are hip podcasters and clever writers, offers a serious-minded, warm-hearted exploration of how the exodus story not only stands as a pivotal event in the Old Testament but as a rich source for talking about redemption throughout the whole Bible. As such, it is one of the best books of its kind this year.

Here is how it says it on the back cover:

Using music as a metaphor, the authors point us to the recurring theme of the exodus throughout the entire symphony of Scripture, shedding light on the Bible’s unified message of salvation and restoration that is at the heart of God’s plan for the world.

Besides this big picture of the nature of the liberation God is bringing and how there are “echoes of exodus” all over the place in the Bible, there are “review questions” and “thought questions” after each chapter, making this a great little study for small groups. I like the blurb by Matthew Harmon, a New Testament prof at Grace College and Theological Seminary who says:

The blend of rich biblical theology and beautiful writing will stir the affections of all who long for the Promised Land of the new heaven and new earth.

Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad Mike Cosper (Thomas Nelson) $16.99  Again, we wrote about this previously at BookNotes and raved about it for being so very interesting and applicable, a fascinating study of Christian cultural engagement based on this one provocative Bible story.  I want to honor this because I like Cosper’s writing (his Rhythms of Grace is a great book on worship; Stories We Tell is a great study of movies and TV, and Recapturing the Wonder is a brilliant study of disenchantment, secularization, and the joy of curiosity as we wonder in awe at the God-drenched universe.) So when this guy directs us to a new model of faithful cultural engagement, I want to list. And wow, what a thesis: he gently pokes are often-used story of Daniel in Babylon as a model and, for reasons you will learn as you read Faith Among the Faithless, he suggests that Esther is perhaps a more fruitful model of faith in a secular age. Of course we all want to live without compromise in an increasingly hostile society. Some o f us have already given in to that society’s vision and values. Sound familiar? Of course, it’s all there in that book of the Bible that does not mention God’s name, that story of sex, ego, revenge.  Agree or not with all of his views or his adaptation of the story for today, but this deserves to be known as an award-winning study for its creative and intentional application. Even in dark times God may be hidden but, Cosper assures, us, God is never absent.

Kyle Idleman says “Esther has the guts and grit that we all need to bend the times to Christ.” Karen Swallow Prior says, “It’s been a long time since I have been so informed, inspired, and encouraged.” Yep. Faith Among the Faithless is one of my favorite books of 2018.

A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics John Dickson (Zondervan) $16.99  This compact sized paperback came out early last year and took it’s place beside The Doubter’s Guide to the Bible and the Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments.  Something a bit more than the famous Oxford University Press “Very Short Introductions” but still concise enough for one who doesn’t want to wade through hundreds of pages of footnotes, these Doubter’s Guides are exception introductions to the topics they approach.  And this one stands out as simply stellar. The quote on the front by Tim Keller gives a clue who exclaims, “I can’t recommend this book enough.” Another good friend and customer of ours, one who buys a lot of books and reads a lot of books, similarly couldn’t stop talking about it and recommending it to those at his church. Which inspired me to not just recommend it but to consider placing it on our Best of 2018 list.

Dickson is fluent in the life of Jesus and the way that Christ places Himself at the center of the Hebrew redemptive narrative; as a scholar he knows all kinds of pertinent books and shares them nicely. It is almost worth getting this little gem to see the sidebars and boxes with recommend book lists in them. It is warm and thoughtful and interesting. Three cheers!

Paul: A Biography N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $29.99 Oh my, I hope you recall our big announcement of this when it came out earlier this year. It is, yes, by one of the great New Testament scholars of our time, whose two volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God weighs in at over 1700 pages! The guy who then wrote another hefty book about all the various scholars on Paul these days called Paul and His Recent Interpreters and then quickly did a clarifying book for those that wanted key questions answered about his views on a handful of key interpretive quandaries in Pauline research — named, naturally, The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle. And this is just his recent work on Paul.

Well, through it all, Tom has been pondering and praying and reading and discussing (not to mention going to the very places Paul went throughout the Mediterranean) and has now gifted us with this, a novel-esque, wonderfully engaging introduction to Paul’s thought by way of telling of his life. This is a captivating, thick, fabulously informative and well-written bio, the intro to Paul we’ve been waiting for. Kudos to Wright for getting this right. As Ben Witherington (who himself has written bunches of significant, big books on Paul) says, it is “written with the usual Wright combination of erudition, intuition, and mature wit and wisdom.” As world-class Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, it is “an enthralling journey into the mind of Paul by one of the great theologians of our time.”

I hope you agree this should be in every church library, circulated widely, read and discussed, and enjoyed, if not out and out celebrated. We are honoring it as one of the very best books of the year!

Tenacious Solidary: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy Walter Brueggemann; edited and introduced by Davis Hankins (Fortress Press) $29.00  This is the most hefty and substantial book by Walt Brueggemann in quite a few years; his recent output has been rich and prolific, but has included a short  Lenten devotional, an even shorter Advent devotional, an succinct (if powerful) adult resource on speaking up, a small book about the conflict in the Holy Land, that brief, potent book on sabbath, and a few shorter collections of academic pieces. Gospel of Hope is a splendid small hardback collection of short excerpts, sayings, quotations, gathering Brueggemann’s wisdom on topics ranging from anxiety and abundance to partisanship and the role of faith in public life, best used to dip into and ponder or when one needs a good quote or short reading.

(And, by the way, he has a potent new book that was just released, perhaps a bit surprising, about hymns called A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing. I’ll be telling you more about that soon, for sure.)

But this big, new volume (over 450 pages) is a major collection of daring sermons, powerful talks, important lectures, Bibles studies and articles that have appeared in recent years — I said he was prolific — all about how the Bible might authorize us to be prophetic and critical about how things are in our world, inviting us to think, as he sometimes puts, it “otherwise.” As Jim Wallis says, “Tenacious Solidarity is a godsend.” This is the sort of creative and thick and serious Bible awareness we need to fund a new imagination that will enable us to face these pressing demands of our time as God would wish.

Here Brueggemann offers an ethic for Biblical people informed by generosity, justice, mercy, and trust in the untamed God of mysterious abundance. He is, as always, remarkably well-read, tossing off citations from the social sciences and great literature and historians and activists and old theologians alongside the most promiscuous use of the Bible you can image. This guy know his Scriptures and draws connections and interconnections as if it were his native tongue — which, after all these it, it is. No wonder he is so raw and insistent and seemingly strange and deeply relevant at the same time. Tenacious Solidarity is one of the great books of the year. It includes 20 strong pieces, a great and informative introduction and a few appendices.

Christine Yoder of Columbia Theological Seminary writes that this book illustrates Walt’s “characteristic skill and wisdom” and demonstrates “the generative and transformative potentials of biblical texts to name and confront urgent challenges of our time.” Amen.

Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place John Ortberg (Tyndale) $17.99  I like John Ortberg; he is well informed, thoughtful, but a masterful communicator. Whether he is sharing what he’s learned from Dallas Willard or summing up complicated arguments from N.T. Wright or, as in The Life You Always Wanted explaining what we mean by spiritual disciplines, he popularizes the best stuff in compelling, entertaining, and helpful ways. This is basic Christian growth material made clear and practical and inspiring. Many loved his last book, another on the interior life inspired by Willard called Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You and the one before that was a fabulous, fabulous introduction to why everybody should study Jesus (Who Is This Man?) He is a vital pastor, and great teacher, and this new one deserves special acclaim. Its a favorite of ours this year.

It is current in that he is studying heaven (the opening page has a spoiler about “The Good Place” TV show) and reminds us that our view of the afterlife is important, but only part of what the gospel is about. In fact, if we understand the theme of the Kingdom of God — the heart of Jesus’s teachings and proclamation, after all —  we’ll understand that “Eternity Is Now in Session.”

Yes, yes, yes.  I love this easy to read book and think his telling about bringing “up there” “down here” is just so useful for most church folks. What if we stopped thinking about eternal life as something we experience after we die, if we stopped think about getting into heaven but about heaven getting into us, we’d change the calibre of our faith and the tone of our churches. And perhaps we’d become more astute about being Kingdom ambassadors in all of life. We’d become people who are alive in our knowledge of God and our piety would spill out in healthy and exciting ways.

Truly, this is “a radical rediscovery of the Christian concept of salvation.” And let me tell you — this is fun and interesting, but the Langston Hughe’s story he tells near the beginning will not quickly be forgotten. And his little illustration about dancing in the last few pages will inspire you to move, to let God’s grace spill over you and allow you to dance with the Lord of the Dance! What a book!

As we’ve said before, there is a DVD curriculum to go with this as well which we also have. Give us a call if you’re interested.

to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context Trevin K. Wax (B&H Academic) $29.99  I used to play off of the Awards Show schtick and offer specific awards for some books. If I were doing this I’d put this as a contender for, at least, the trophy for the most intriguing theological book title. Oh, there’s some wacky ones out there and theological textbooks can enter the realm of the arcane pretty quickly. But this; it makes sense. There are, you may know, reputable scholars who find apocalyptic themes in most of the Kingdom language of Jesus and insist He is revealing a new order in the middle of real life, an upside down Kingdom that will soon be consummated. When will all things be made new? Well, that’s the eschatological question, isn’t it?  And so, without any weird rapture charts or end-times scenarios, Wax here is saying that, at least, we are to live now as if we are in rehearsal for eternity. “People get ready,” the old Curtis Mayfield song sang. As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, “Wax convincingly sets out the biblical basis for ‘eschatological discipleship’, which means the importance of waking up (and staying awake) to the reality that our citizenship in heaven begins now.

In a way, this is a much more scholarly and meaty treatment of the basic teaching Ortberg makes in his lovely Eternity Is Now in Session [see above.]Wax calls it eschatological discipleship, we live now as if the future that we anticipate is breaking in now, already but not yet. Get it?

His first chapter shows that he is conversant in some of the best stuff on worldview formation and thinking Christianly about whole-life, fully human sorts of public discipleship. He quotes Al Wolters and Sander Griffion, he cites journal articles by serious thinkers in this tradition of worlldviewish discipleship from across the theological spectrum, from Nancy Pearcey to Brian Walsh to N.T. Wright, not to mention philosophers such as Charles Taylor cultural critics like James Smith and Skye Janthani.

Here is how one of my favorite missional worldview scholars, Michael Goheen, puts it:

It is not a matter of whether eschatology will shape the church’s life but only a matter of which one. Discipleship, a burning need in the syncretistic American church, surely needs to be re-envisioned in terms of equipping God’s people to more and more live out of a biblical eschatology of the kingdom. In this book Trevin Wax takes up this challenge and encounters the two most powerful rival eschatologies of our day–the Enlightenment notion of progress and Consumerism. I pray that God will use this book to enable the American church to reimagine discipleship in its missionary setting.

I think maybe we should have an award for the book that inspires the most insightful endorsing blurbs.  Many passionate memoirs and novels certainly generate over the top, gripping, eloquent raves. But for a non-fiction book that needs nicely summarized, this quote by Mike Goheen is itself worth pondering. Read that quote again and tell me this doesn’t seem like a vital, urgent book.

Eschatological Discipleship is perhaps a bit more academic sequel to, or maybe a theological foundation for Wax’s 2017 book This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel  (B&H; $16.99.) Agree or not with all of his cultural criticism, this is a great example of trying to be faithfully “in but not of” the world around us, living well into what Niebuhr called “Christian transforming culture.”  Check it out.

Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00  This book is nothing short of extraordinary and was perhaps our favorite book to sell this past year. And it was one of our best sellers — thank you, Amazon, for running out, and thank you, dear Fleming, for saying such nice things about us on line. It certainly deserved to be a Hearts & Minds bestseller and deserves to be widely read; there is no other book like it. Who, these days, doesn’t at least try to attend to the spiritual disciplines and theological tone of the season of Advent, inviting us, as it does, to wait, to anticipate, to long for the final restoration of creation when Christ comes the second time?

Advent: The Once and Future Coming… is nearly a life-time’s worth of Advent sermons preached by the thoughtful and eloquent Episcopal pastor-theologian/preacher extraordinaire who is eloquent about the hard tensions of living “between the times”of the Kingdom come and the Kingdom consummated. Episcopalians do Advent better than most of us and Rev. Rutledge’s sermons — like “Advent Begins in the Dark” — explore the theme with remarkable insight and many lovely illustrations and anecdotes. (She is the author, recall, of another collection of sermons called The Gospel and the New York Times.) I often say that her thick volume The Undoing of Death is my favorite book to read from during Lent. This new Advent work is without a doubt is a book I will cherish for the rest of my life. Highly recommended as one of the most significant religious publishing releases of 2018.

By the way, we’ve announced it previously but you should know that her handsome, compact sized hardback, Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday (Eerdmans; $18.00) is now here. I have intentionally not dipped in yet, but am eager to read these sermons in due time. You should, too.

Hostility to Hospitality: Spirituality and Professional Socialization Within Medicine Michael J. Balboni & Tracy A. Balboni (Oxford University Press) $35.95 As you know, we here at Hearts & Minds are passionate about providing books about relating faith and deeply Christian principles and values to various work spheres. If any job done before God and for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom can be a holy calling, if we all need what Steve Garber calls “visions of vocation” then we also need to ask the tough question: what does it mean to think and act faithfully, appropriately, Christianly, consonant with how God made the world and how Christ is redeeming it, in my specific job.  There are a lot of books these days about a Christian view of work, about how all followers of Christ have a missional calling to carry their faith into the marketplace, to be artists or scientists or home-makers or teachers for the common good, loving God and neighbor in the very way we practice those careers and calling. Got it?  Sure you do.

But yet, there still isn’t enough fresh, thoughtful stuff coming out on various careers, thinking well and studying various jobs and callings. So, we want to honor this book and all that it signifies as a keen example of a major Christian project, scholarly and applicable, for those in health care, published on a mainstream academic press. That is, this is a major contribution to the field of medicine and it is asking, for the profession, what role spiritual things play in the practice of medicine,  This is a book of practical Christian thinking about health and healing about medicine and health care, about doctoring and nursing and teaching medicine and, well, about being sick and being a patient, too. It is asking — with a heavy bit of research backing up their quest, and serious finding which they share — if there is a way in which American medicine distances itself form religion and spirituality. The “secular-sacred divide” that they write about “unleashes depersonalizing social forces through the market, technology, and legal-bureaucratic powers that reduce clinicians to tiny cogs in an unstoppable machine.”  Wow.

As it says right on the back cover, “the authors argue for structural pluralism as the missing piece to changing hostility to  hospitality.” Again, wow. This is an award winning thesis if I ever saw one and want to celebrate that somebody is thinking like this, doing this kind of work, putting together such a substantive collection of essays and binding them together within a world-famous publishing house. Let those with ears, hear.  Kudos to Michael and Tracy Balboni.

Michael J. Balboni, PhD is on faculty at Harvard University and a theologian-in-residence in the Department of Psychiatry, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston. His social science research has centered on the intersection of spirituality and medicine. He serves as a congregational minister at Park Street Church and the Longwood Christian Community.Tracy A. Balboni, MD is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and serves as the Clinical Director of the Supportive and Palliative Radiation Oncology Service at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women’s Hospital. She is an internationally recognized leader and researcher at the intersection of spirituality, palliative care, and oncology.

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free Linda Kay Klein (Touchstone) $26.00  A few years ago we had a category in our end of the year awards for books “I loved to hate” which were, obviously, really bad books. Then I’d sometimes give an award for a work I “hated to love.” This would be one of those, a book with which I have grave concerns, strong disagreements, and yet really, really loved. Although “loved” is not quite the right word. It was moving, fascinating, insightful, provocative, entertaining, horrific, important, sad, and, occasionally funny.

First, I don’t like the title — a whole “generation” of women were not shamed by the purity thing, and the alarmist nature of the subtitle  — “breaking free” — makes the author’s journey out of conservative evangelicalism sound more sensational than it is. Her journey is poignant and painful but she wasn’t in a cult and her parents were not like, say, Tara Westover’s.

Still, apparently, a whole, whole lot of young people, especially young women, were shamed and worse by the evangelical purity movement and it is regrettable. This moving book —  part memoir and part oral history and sociology — wants those to who have been through this sub-culture to know they are not alone.

It further insists that we who remain in the evangelical sub-culture re-think our attitudes, theologies, and educational practices around sex ed. Like the brand new, controversial Nadia Bolz-Weber book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, this book, like it or not, reminds us that even well-intended efforts at teaching holiness can become deeply harmful. (See Lauren Winner’s book on “characteristic” sin, The Dangers of Christian Practice, mentioned above.)

Many of those who so loudly encouraged sexual purity made a fetish of it (I have used this exact phrase about this for years) and as an evangelical bookstore in the middle of that movement a few decades ago we were not particularly impressed with it all. We did not stock the rings and didn’t push the books. We were put off by the rather weird daddy-daughter ceremonies and the “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” courtship nonsense and the standard overstatement of the harms of pre-marital sex (not to mention the way some evangelicals acted — and still act if your talking about LGBTQ sex, at least — as if sexual sin is way worse than other sins, forgetting that economic injustice is decried much more often in the Bible than is non-married sexual activity.) I don’t think our church pulled any of the gross stunts described in this book to dramatize the loss of virginity and the youth ministry stuff we promoted most seemed to be balanced and thoughtful and mostly pretty wise.

I think Brian McLaren’s comment on the back cover is very insightful, saying, “When ‘Just say no’ was their only message, and when the language of purity was their main ethical category, deep and lasting personal damage were inevitable.”

Much of this book sounded very, very familiar and the hurts and violence done to some of the women whose stories Linda Kay Klein uncovers in her research should not be that surprising. The assumptions about gender roles in many churches have too often been unjust and we and our staff here have often pulled books because they were sexist, or, just plain dumb. We knew this deeply gendered and overstated emphasis about sexual purity had consequences but, whew, some of the stuff some of the women carry from their years of coming of age in fundamentalist youth groups a decade or so ago is tragic. These churches and ministries often did not serve their young people well and the women in Pure who testify about demeaning lessons, shaming customs, cruddy attitudes, and worse, are brave to allow their stories to be told.  That Linda Klein tells her own story (which includes a sub-plot of her own struggle with chronic pain and severe illness) makes this a very engaging read.

A few of the women in Pure (including the author) have made some peace with their past and may still see themselves as Christians, some of them vibrantly so. The story (told in many other books these days) of young adults maintaining (or not) relationships with their parents and former mentors and friends when leaving a strict fundamentalism is poignant and arresting. Many of those in this book have left the faith and are deeply wounded and understandably bitter about how they were treated in youth groups and church camps and congregations all over this land.

In a very provocative endorsement on the back, best-selling author Glennon Doyle, in reminding us of this moment in history (“as women come to the collective understanding that the institutions we spend our lives serving are not created to serve us”) says, interestingly:

Women are canaries in religious coal mines —  and Pure emboldens us to escape toxic misogyny and experience a fresh breath of freedom.

If this causes you to recoil a bit, I’d advise reading Pure and at least hear the downside stories of women who were shamed and offered weirdly unhelpful views of their bodies, their sexuality, their future marriages, and see if somehow something is awry.

One does not have to — and I do not — agree with Ms. Klein’s proposals and answers to this crisis of shame to appreciate her important book. (I don’t find Nadia Bolz-Weber’s theology of sex in Shameless, adequate, either, but I wept through some of it and found it to be a very important read, spicy as it is.) To be honest, Klein isn’t strong on proposals other than exposing the dangers of fundamentalism and a cry to “lose the shame” which I suppose is a weakness of the book; she isn’t a conservative evangelical anymore so it isn’t trying to offer a profoundly theological position for the traditional church. For those with a robust and orthodox Christian worldview, one would need to supplement this book with a better perspective on sex and sexuality, gender, self-awareness, body positivity, virginity, marriage, Biblically-informed ethics, and such. But first, we have to admit we’ve got stuff wrong, that many Christian bookstores and evangelical para-church organizations and Christian camps and youth ministries and curriculum developers and radio shows have played a part in perpetrating a movement with an ethos that wasn’t helpful or faithful, and we need to hear and host the hurt still carried by victims of misconduct of this sort.

More and more young adults are speaking openly about the harm done to them by churches that treated sex as if it were an illicit drug. When ‘Just say no’ was their only message, and when the language of purity was their main ethical category, deep and lasting personal damage were inevitable. That’s why Linda Kay Klein’s new book is so important. It pulls back the covers on ‘purity culture’ and the harm it has done…. An important book from an important new voice. –Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration

The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity Daniel Darling (The Good Book Company) $16.99 Forty some years ago we were somewhat involved in an organization that tried to bear witness amongst the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons movement that concern for pre-born humans should also be a part of their agenda. Peaceniks often marched under the banner of the famous verse from Deuteronomy “Choose Life.” Similarly, we’d attend Right to Life events and try to convince our anti-abortion friends that targeting millions of civilians, including children, as our nuclear weapons strategy does, is not very pro-life. I suppose it doesn’t need explained that we were physically removed from at least one anti-war gig and verbally assaulted plenty from the anti-abortion events. Nobody wanted to be very consistently pro-life; most didn’t even want to talk to each other.

Except, that is, a few radical Catholics and Mennonites and friends at ESA and Sojo who developed a consistent life ethic and who stood up for the poor, those trafficked and enslaved, the prisoners, who opposed the death penalty and abortion, who were anti-war and pro-environment. These consistent life folks decried racism and affirmed the dignity of the unborn and the aged, advocated for the rights of the disabled, thought about immigrants and sex abuse and pollution and war and the sexism that plagues us all, all in the same ethical category, asking: what does it mean to be consistently pro-life?

This new book by Daniel Darling, Vice President for the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is not quite like that — he’s no Mennonite pacifist nor a Daniel Berrigan and he’s not part of “Feminists for Life.”  But, nonetheless, this is one of the closest books we’ve seen in decades to so very deeply remind us that the theological notion of human dignity — we are all made in the image of God and have God-given dignity! — should loom large over all our social and ethical quandaries. It is, as Albert Mohler puts it, “a compelling and careful articulation” of human dignity.

Or, Ann Voskamp says, “This may be one of the most important books of our time.”

Speaking of the dignity of the disabled, one of our finest writers and sharpest minds within evangelical Christianity these past decades has been Joni Eareckson Tada, living with paraplegia, who types stuff like this with her specially adapted equipment: “The definition of “human being” is being altered, and the impact is creeping into hospitals, schools, and businesses. This is a must-read for every Christian.”  Yep, from deep questions of bio-ethics (which Joni has studied and written about) to new discussions about the “trans-human” we simply have to recover a classic, theologically robust vision of the human person. So much depends upon it, and this book invites to a “dignity revolution” which could impact how we treat others (in the grocery store line or on-line) and how we think about abortion, euthanasia, capitol punishment, the poor, the sick, the refugee, race relations, and more.

Indeed, this is a book to consider, to debate, to ponder what implications it might have. As Michael Ware, formerly of the Obama White House, who described his own principles about a consistent sort of life ethic in his book Reclaiming Hope challenges:

“Consider this book carefully, and then act to implement its vision in your life.”

As the legendary White Album puts it:  “You say you want a revolution?” This is it!

Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat Os Guinness (IVP) $27.00  Any time this excellent speaker and writer, social critic, and Christian leader writes, we would do well to pay attention. This is one of Dr. Guinness’s major works, and it isn’t simple or trite. It is — from his point of view as an Englishman living in the DC area — a love letter to America, and a caring chastisement, we might say, to those of us who take our liberties for granted. He is stern, here, about how most Americans (not to mention our civic and religious leaders) simply don’t know what we should about the profundity and genius of the American experiment (not to mention profound Judeo-Christian influences such as notions of covenant) and the gravity and urgency of the threats poised against these revolutionary ideas. He is not (although in some ears could be heard to be) an advocate of the “Christian America” thesis nor is he an advocate of a glib sort of civilc faith that extols civil religion dressed up with a MAGA hat. He is a serious, nonpartisan, deeply Christian observer, alarmed at the drift of our way of life and not optimistic about lessening the erosion of our civility, nor our mutual commitments to uniquely American ideals and principles.

Yet, as an evangelical and deeply devoted Christian, rooted in Reformation thought and the piety and practices of Anglican spirituality, he is one with great hope. (Read his book from just a few years ago, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, for a good dose of Christian hope that isn’t rooted in naive optimism, and is Guinness at his biblical best.) In order to be faithful and hopeful, he offers us this guide. Last Call for Liberty  — intentionally designed with a tattered flag on the sober cover — formulates 10 key questions that each American must answer. These questions are profound for all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or how much or how little we ourselves experience the tension with the times. It is my sense that these questions should be asked/discussed communally, too — as families and churches and organizations and non-profits and civic groups and colleges, we must all grapple with our understanding of these 10 big questions.

Guinness says that the American republic is suffering “its gravest crisis since the Civil War.” I don’t know if this is so, but we all feel the awfulness of these days, ache for greater civility and common ground, and many of us are deeply dismayed. Perhaps those with more conservative leanings are more deeply aware of how our judiciary and institutions that are crucial to freedom are failing; we need more than better manners to restore the structures for pluralism and e pluribus unam. It isn’t necessary to harp on how conflicted we are as our divisions about the current President are merely a symptom of as deeper malaise. I do not think Guiness’s big 10 questions are the only way to get at the root of our crisis, and there other obviously other questions about other matters, but we should know that the crisis is deeper than we know. As Guinness makes very clear, it is not primarily about Trump.

Part of the genius of Last Call for Liberty is how Guinness repeatedly, consistently, raises the question of what view of freedom we have, what assumptions about freedom and liberty we hold. The big question for him is if we are guided and indebted to the ideals and ethos and values and convictions of those who proposed the revolution of 1776 or to the one known as the French Revolution of 1789.  He might have been a bit more explanatory for those who don’t immediately know the difference but as he walks us through this 300 page treatise it becomes a liturgy, clarifying and shaping our deepest desires: 1776 or 1789? 1776 or 1789?

As always, Guinness is literate, historically informed, eloquent and passionate. He feels this stuff deeply; of course, mostly because of his study and convictions but also because, as a child, he witnessed first hand the climax of the brutal Chinese revolution in 1949 where he lost loved ones (his parents were medical missionaries there) and was eventually expelled by the draconian powers there in 1951. He has seen repression, even as he has travelled all over the world, realizing deeply the depth of injustice and the consequences of ideas. (See his powerful book about the challenge of evil in the world called Unspeakable, which shows his profound social conscience and awareness of God’s deep care for the poor and oppressed.) The new Last Call book is chock full of quotes and epigrams from writers and thinkers as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Leo Tolstoy, Berthold Brecht and Ambrose Bierce, his beloved Winston Churchill and Thucydides and Abigail Adams and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He is profoundly indebted in Abraham Lincoln, and partial to Yuval Noah Harari and Abraham Joshua Heschel and, naturally, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, whose insight about the French revolution is indispensable.

The women and men Dr. Guinness thanks in his lovely, sincere, acknowledgements are notable and yet, he is, in this field at least, one of the most widely-read gentleman I have ever met. Don’t miss this book. Last Call for Liberty (whether you agree with its assessment or not) is a treasure to read; urgent for anyone concerned about the constitutional republic and restoring our “better angels” to our current state of affairs.

As he says more than once, and solemnly in the last paragraph,

America, America, freedom is at stake. Act worthy of yourselves, your great experiment in freedom, your unfinished story, and the challenge of the hour and of humanity. God, history, and the watching world await your answer.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump John Fea (Eerdmans) $24.99  I have written at great length — in our local newspaper, in BookNotes, and on my social media space — that the unqualified conservative Christian support for President Trump is inexplicable. For a dozen reasons that are nearly incontrovertible, it is clear that the President is a bad man and a bad leader. By no reasonable metrics can we be glad for his temperament, his antics, or his odd-ball style of governance. Good people of good faith can disagree with the “lesser of two evils” sorts of complicated choices we have when voting and can line up on different sides of the isles as we watch the sausage getting made. But all serious Christians must, at least, have some sort of Biblically-informed, Christianly conceived, spiritual-driven, public theology. We must have “the mind of Christ” and allow the Scriptural worldview to illumine our views of contemporary issues and the nature of law and politics and citizenship. Evangelicals, who love Jesus, insist on conversion and holiness, and Christ’s Kingship over all of life and regard the Bible with a for-all-of-life authority. We dare not say, as Jerry Falwell Jr. recently did, “I don’t look to Jesus for my politics.” Evangelicals worthy of the name may disagree about many implications that flow from a Christian political vision, but we dare not say that.

And so, it is essential to try to figure out the coherence, if there is any, of the so-called Christian right. Those that know me know that this has been huge priority for me for decades and decades and I have invested much personal energy of my life time to help create conversations around the meaning of the Lordship of Christian for our citizenship and public lives. Sometimes I find it necessary to challenge the right and the left and I often try to graciously insist that we should have no fundamental loyalties to the conservatives or the liberals. For whatever reason, these days, I find a much greater interest in the Bible and Jesus from the progressive side than from most on the side of the Christian right, and that is different than it was a generation ago, and feels exceptionally ironic.

Still, as black evangelist Tony Evans once said, when Jesus comes back he will not be riding a donkey or an elephant. Or, more seriously, as David Koyzis writes, we must get at the deep philosophical influences of the Enlightenment and French Revolutions to understand our current political divides. (See his brilliant, deep Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies for a sophisticated explication of this rejection of the right and the left as we seek for a uniquely Christian third way.)

Which is a long way of saying why I am declaring Believe Me as one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.

Look: I don’t agree with all of the analysis Dr. Fea brings, and I wish he had covered stuff that he misses. In this sense it may not be utterly adequate but it is nonetheless the best book in recent years on the new itineration of the Christian right in the Trump years. Fea is a respected historian and brings his discerning critical eyes to what he calls “the court evangelicals.” There is no other book like it.

Good historians such as George Marsden have given big accolades to Believe Me. For instance, the always measured Mark Noll writes:

John Fea’s timely and sobering book shows convincingly how legitimate concerns from white evangelical Protestants about a rapidly secularizing American culture metastasized into a fear-driven brew of half-truths, fanciful nostalgia, misplaced Christian nationalism, ethical hypocrisy, and political naiveté–precisely, that is, the mix that led so many white evangelicals not only to cast their votes for Donald Trump but also to regard him as a literal godsend.

Few contemporary Christian thinkers and advocates for a balanced public theology are as wise and balanced as Richard Mouw. His own memoir is the Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground and he knows much about hearing various viewpoints and showing “uncommon decency” as his book on civility puts it. And about Fea and Believe Me, Mouw says this:

While the significant support for Donald Trump by white evangelicals has been the stuff of headlines, there has been little serious probing of the deeper factors at work. John Fea here gives us what we need, with his insightful tracing of the theological-spiritual road that has brought us to this point. A wise and important book!

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by Messiah College prof and Hearts & Minds friend (and blogger extraordinaire ) Dr. John Fea deserves a, extra award medal for all he’s done promoting conversation around this book. He has helped us understand the contemporary interface of Christian faith and modern politics and while it isn’t the last word, it is a very, very important contribution. I’m glad other outlets more important than BookNotes have named this as one of the outstanding books of 2018.

Listen to Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service:

It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.

Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning edited by Mark Labberton (IVP) $17.00 . I have written at length about this book when it first came out and I hope that our BookNotes review then garnered it some attention. It’s a wise and interesting and helpful book for any evangelical, and for anyone that has even a bit of interest in what that part of the church pew, many who sit on the right side of the church, are like these days. What this really does is ask the tough question if this phrase — evangelical — is worth saving, clarifying, using, or not. Again, we think this is a very important question and the authors of this book, themselves insiders to the movement, have different answers to the existential question.

The women and men who contribute to this book are all well worth hearing, and they each bring a certain passion or expertise to the conversation. Still Evangelical includes Lisa Sharon Harper, Lauren Winner, 

Here is the table of contents that will help you see why we think it is such a great book, covering such important and interesting concerns. We hope you send us an order and think this through yourself.

  •  Will Evangelicalism Surrender? (Lisa Sharon Harper)
  •  Why I Am an Evangelical (Karen Swallow Prior)
  •  Recapturing Evangelical Identity and Mission (Mark Young)
  •  Immigration and the Latina/o Community (Robert Chao Romero)
  •  Evangelical Futures (Soong-Chan Rah)
  •  Theology and Orthopraxis in Global Evangelicalism (Allen Yeh)
  •  Remaining to Reform (Sandra Maria Van Opstal)
  •  Looking for Unity in All the Wrong Places (Mark Galli)
  •  Evangelicalism Must Be Born Again (Shane Claiborne)
  •  The Importance of Listening in Today’s Evangelicalism (Jim Daly)
  •  Hope for the Next Generation (Tom Lin)

Our hats are off to all of these contributors and for those grappling with religious idenity, wanting to be true to the consciences, true to their understanding of Scripture, and continue to abide in Jesus, even as they try to discern how and with whom and with what words to do that before the watching world. 

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy Jonah Goldberg (Crown Forum) $28.00  Well — it is getting so late I just don’t have the capacity to carefully review this now although, believe me, I’ve tried. In fact, even if I was bright and chipper and at my best I am not sure I can tell you why I want to commend this book. It is big and heavy and serious and at times tedious, with a lot of fascinating footnotes, too  — except when it’s not; Goldberg is known for his nearly gonzo humor and although he restrains himself in this heady work, it does have it’s clever moments. He is witty and smart and maybe only somewhat right, but this is a great book that took years to write. It is certainly a notable book of the year and I wish others would consider it carefully.

Here’s just two things you should know. Goldberg used to be a wild-eyed leftist but, as many such young idealists find, their Che berets and Jack Kerouac motorcycles don’t quit comport with the real world and its deep needs and he settled down, began to study the intellectual ideas and ideals of classic, serious-minded conservatives. He is one of those noble right wing guys in the tradition of William F. Buckley — who through intellectual prowess and sheer determination ran the racist John Bircher’s out of the Goldwater movement — who cannot abide the values and dispositions of Donald Trump; not because Trump is a conservative, but because, in a way, he’s not a real conservative. Goldberg knows that at the heart of historic conservatism lies individual virtue, and the narcissism and greed and irreligion and lust for power and petty meanness and intellectualism and nationalism of the current President does not build up our civic strengths nor help the Republican party or our democracy. They call these guys “Never Trumpers” and they are a principled crew within the conservative intelligentsia who call out those who have accommodated their values and virtues to the allow them to support Mr. Trump. So, Goldberg is a principled, funny, and serious conservative at the American Enterprise Institute who writes a must-read column in National Review online.

Goldberg’s earlier book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change, took issue with how liberals tend to misunderstand fascism and argued that the threat of power-brokering control comes less from the right than from the left. For many of us it was a counter-intuitive analysis, but the book was a blast and made me think.

If Liberal Fascism made me think, Suicide of the West made my head hurt. Okay, that’s not really true, but it was pretty scholarly for a best-seller. It is a gift to be able to write a book that fast moving but still detailed, sweeping intellectual history without generalizations (at least not too many) and both oddly acerbic and generous. I guess what I mean is that he can be feisty and forthright in his denunciation of dumb ideas and that it cuts both ways. He brings strong critique to those I disapprove of and next thing you know he’s hitting a bit too close to home. I like that he attempts to be fair and not idealogical.

Which is, in fact, the point: those who adopt what I would call an idolatrous reductionism, end up as cheap populists, complaining about how identity politics on the left is hurting our country, breaking unity over who is most aggrieved, all the while sounding as tribal and ideological as anyone. What an irony that those decrying identity politics the loudest are those on the Trumpian right. It should be clear from the subtitle of this conservative book that his critique is as much against the far right as it is the cultural left. I guess you see why I like it — a big, sweeping genealogy of ideas and showing that too often, the right has bought into ideas that are themselves not adequate. In this regard, this important book should appeal to those who appreciate Os Guinness, say, or never-Trumpers like moderate, wise, conservatives such as  Michael Gerson and David Brooks and Yuval Levin.

The great Levin, by the way, says of it:

“More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic.”

There are critiques to be made of his own idolatries and the are significant. I think he means well, and I like that about him, but I think he is wrong about some of his intellectual history and some of his policy proposals. But that’s not the point here. It was thrilling to read a book like this — even if well over 450 pages — and a good intellectual exercise for his small town bookseller. Here are a few other good endorsements that will hopefully illustrate why I list this in our 2018 list of most interesting books.

Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is a tour de force. As ever, Goldberg wears his extraordinary erudition lightly as he demonstrates how the ideas that have animated free societies for the past 250 years are the greatest creations of humankind–and how we are imperiling our posterity by the way we mishandle, ignore, and belittle them. This is a very important book.
–John Podhoretz, Editor, Commentary Magazine

Populism and identity politics are not just unpleasant; they are an existential threat to the American way of life. With characteristic wit and erudition, Jonah Goldberg argues that if you value democracy and a free society, you must stand against ideological tribalism, no matter what your politics. Suicide of the West raises an alarm everyone needs to hear, and makes clear the path we need to take. 
–Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute

I am not sure I am as much of a fan as these two are, and certainly not as sure as this next blurb, but it’s so fun — and it sounds like something Jonah himself might pen — that I’ll share it with you, laughing that of course I want to list a book that ends up having endorsing blurbs like this!

When future archeologists are digging through our ruins and asking, as they will ask, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ I hope they come upon a copy of Suicide of the West, and that it is only slightly charred from the bonfire into which the mad idiot ideologues of our time are sure to cast it.” 
–Kevin Williamson, National Review correspondent

Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear Matthew Kaemingk (Eerdmans) $28.00 I did a major review of this before it got to be a much-talked about study, and I am proud to have been an early cheerleader. This is without a doubt one of the more important and substantive books of 2018 and it is offers a very nuanced, even surprising analysis of the modern West’s immigration and refugee crisis and Muslim-Christian relations.

You’ll have to go back to my earlier BookNotes review or the many other reviews to understand all this, but the short version is this: Kaemingk studies the political and social philosophy of the early 20th century conservative Christian political leader in Holland, Abraham Kuyper, whose view of pluralism and common grace set the Netherlands on a course to become a nation and culture which affirmed the “worldviewish” nature of life and therefore became eagerly open to diversity and hosted a variety of perspectives, robustly, even. There was room for all in this small Calvinist culture — they government funded, fairly, alternative schools and newspapers so lots of ideas could be considered and minorities were not tyrannized by the majority rule. This theologically-rooted social architecture (with a Christian political party to enhance such cultural attitudes and structural pluralism — Kuyper became the Prime Minister, after all) led to an open and liberal attitude towards immigrants.

In what seemed like less than a year, Holland turned away in the early twenty-first century from that open-minded and generous attitude towards outsiders and, with a tide of alt-right, anti-Muslim hostility (stimulated by the brutal murder of a descendant of Vincent Van Gogh by a jihadi/Islamist terrorist) became one of Europe’s most hostile countries to refugees and immigrants.

In Matt Kaemingk’s capable hands this becomes more than a parable, even more than a case study, but a hefty dose of deeply principled wisdom for these days. He offers a splendid (page-turning at times) account of the rise of Christian-based arguments for pluralism and, using Kuyperian Holland as a case study, how this does and doesn’t help with the huge question of immigration today. With today’s vivid headlines as a backdrop, Christian Hospitality is deep and thoughtful and urgent. One reviewer called it “winsome” while another called it “wonderfully written and ambitious.” James K.A. Sith has a fabulous foreword saying it is a “singular book… Here is the public theology we need today.”

Hear Christian political theorist Jonathan Chaplin:

A pathbreaking, theologically rich Christian intervention into contemporary public debates over the place of Muslims in Western societies… Matthew Kaemingk has pulled off a feat many would thought thought impossible.

We care about the immigration crisis and have plenty of books reminding us to care for outsiders. We have books about inter-faith conversations and plenty of other resources that would be good for beginners in this area. But Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear stands out as an extraordinary study, a book unlike any other, that is deserving of an award for one of the very Best Books of 2018.

Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up Kathy Khang (IVP) $16.00  I have mentioned this book a couple of times —  at BookNotes and that special column I did in the Public Justice Report — and have been glad to get to recommend it. It is, as the titles says, a book about speaking up. It evaluates various motivations for civic involvement, tells how to be involved, and offers sage advise about civility and more. Nikki Toyama-Szeto, executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action, who knows a thing or two about all this, says “Raise Your Voice is honest, funny, and utterly practical.”  Rachel Held Evans talks about its “integrity and holy force.

There are social forces (including our own families, as Khang herself experienced) who try to silence or diminish our voices. There are spiritual and emotional hurdles and prices to be paid for speaking up. Raise Your Voice will help avoid the ugly side of social media and help you navigate power dynamics and other barriers to overcome if we are going to be faithfully engaged in the public square. Although it pays special attention to the dynamics sometimes faced by women and people of color, this is for all of us, a fine and wise resource that is a fabulous read. Kudos, again, to IVP, for bringing to us a book that is unlike anything else available.

Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen (Zondervan) $34.99 We have bunches and bunches of books on evangelism, or storytelling the gospel, or apologetics both evidentialist and presuppositional and all manner of reasonable and postmodern styles. It is a fascinating field and I’m sad that more don’t deeply delve into resources to help them bear witness and help others along in the journey of coming to deeper and more confident faith. There is no doubt, though, that the art of apologetics, of being prepared to explain the hope we have in Christ, needs to be re-learned from generation to generation. In these times — influenced by social media and what Taylor called “The Secular Age” and the cynicism many have about religion — we simply have to be more savvy if we want to connect well with others, including the unchurched and the de-churched and the young who are making up their minds about faith in this hyper-modern, pluralizing social context. Apologetics at the Cross is a masterful, comprehensive guide that takes our cultural context seriously. It is presented like a lively textbook and is very highly recommended for personal use and for classes. (There is a remarkable set of video lectures on DVD by the author as well.)

If you don’t believe me that a book of this nature deserves to be celebrated and promoted as a BookNotes Best of the Year, listen to this, from our friend Jamie Smith:

Just when you think this book is the comprehensive apologetics textbook you’ve been looking for–covering Scripture, history, philosophy, and culture–you realize it’s also something more: a creative, original proposal for an ‘inside-out’ apologetic that is precisely what we need in our secular age. If you’re skittish about ‘apologetics, ‘ like I am, this book will show you another way. — James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy, Calvin College, and author of You Are What You Love

Or, how about this, from Timothy Keller, author of Reason for God and :

In our culture, the practice of apologetics has moved from being a ’boutique’ topic for specialists to being a requirement for even having a conversation with one’s neighbor. Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen have produced the most comprehensive, accessible, and up-to-date manual on Christian apologetics that I know of. Despite how full its treatment of the subject, it is eminently readable. The authors present all the various approaches to apologetics respectfully, proposing their own pathway that incorporates a large range of insights from many disciplines and thinkers. Highly recommended. — Timothy Keller, pastor emeritus, the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches of New York City

 

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PRE-ORDER these soon-to-be-released books at a 20% off from Hearts & Minds

We can take pre-orders for nearly anything you are eager to snag; just let us know. We family-owned and operated, indie bookstores may not be super high-tech but we are what Leonard Sweet once called “high-touch.” We use the internet — sure — and I’m on-line a lot. But we give that personalized service that is as close as face-to-face real as we can get. (Apologies to my Lutheran pastor pal who put with with Epiphany jokes today as I answered her questions about getting books quickly. I’m glad she got it when I said her group finally saw the light.)  So, ya want something? Give us a shout! Considering ordering something? Let us know how we can help. Wonder about a book you’ve heard about — maybe we can tell you more. Unless it is some super funky self-publisher who doesn’t deal with stores, or a sectarian publishing house that doesn’t offer wholesale prices to real stores (like LifeWay) we say we can get almost anything.

Here are just a couple of titles that are building a buzz this month. We are familiar with the authors and/or books in each case and highly recommend them.  Get ’em on your list and we’ll send them out as soon as they are released. We may be in small-town central Pennsylvania, but we often get things before the big chains. We’re happy to get these forthcoming titles to you as soon as they become available.

ALL ARE 20% OFF THEIR SUGGESTED RETAIL PRICE.

Bakers and Fresh Food Makers Margaret Feinberg (Zondervan) $22.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39  release date: 1/22/19

I have chatted with dear Margaret from time to time and so appreciate her joy, her hope, her deep commitment to finding God in the real world. You may recall a review we did here once raving about her book Wonderstruck that, in memoir-like fashion, almost, told of her journey to be struck afresh by the glories of God by paying attention to the goodness of creation. Her book Fight Back With Joy tells of her effort to share joy during a very, very hard time in her own life.

Margaret Feinberg is an adventurous person and a good writer and has done this kind of book before — an earlier one called Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey explored those ancient occupations and what they teach us about the God of the Bible. In this new one she will be looking at the whole “foodie” phenomenon, telling of her journeying around the world in this “culinary study of Scripture” and visiting olive growers, fruit farmers, butchers, potters. Does God have a foodie focus? Will paying attention to artisanal food sources offer insight into how we read the Scriptures? What might happen — to our faith and our own food tastes and dining practices — if we see God as the Executive Chef of the Universe? How does feasting help us savor life and understand embodied, real-world faith? This is fun stuff and, frankly, not frivolous. How we embody our life in God’s good but broken world is of urgent importance and we don’t often hear about such a quest.  We’re excited to see this fresh, new book.

We already have the delectable six-week Taste and See DVD curriculum ($41.99 includes the DVD and one partipants guidebook; OUR SALE PRICE = $ 33.59) which could be a fun treat to use with your small group. You might have to forego cheap chips and soda for your Bible study snacks, but this could be fun. We recommend the book and the DVD, too and give a hearty shout-out to the always generous Ms. Feinberg for offering this whimsical, good, work to us all.

Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels Richard J. Mouw (Brazos Press) $19.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99  release date: 2/19/29

This trim volume (192 pages) is easily worth twice the price and I, myself, am on my second time through reading an early, advanced manuscript. Mouw is a hero of mine and we have many mutual, dear friends. (I was so, so happy to see him appear from time to time in the recent memoir by his philosopher-scholar colleague Nicholas Wolterstorff which is called In This World of Wonder: Memoir of a Life in Learning.) Dr. Mouw is a reasonable, clear-headed, open-minded, generous, Dutch Reformed, Kuyperian, PC(USA) evangelical who is active both in the world of scholarship — just for instance, he has thought so much about this that he has a small collection of inspiring pieces called Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars — and in the broader world of theological studies. (In fact, he wrote his own memoir, less a full autobiography, but a memoir-like set of reflections about his own academic journey, the issues he has attended to, the reception he has gotten as he has spoken his evangelical mind in a real variety of settings. As the retired President of the world’s most multi-ethnic and trans-denominational seminary (Fuller) he obviously has been in the thick of all kind of conversations and his memoir, Adventures in Evangelical Civility shares not only his academic and social interests but how he tried to live out of a posture of civility. His wonderful Uncommon Decency is a call to Christian civility and his Adventures in… is his own story of being a leader who majors in that theme.

The forthcoming Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs… is a bit more of the same and, as I’ve noted, I couldn’t put it down and am taking great pleasure in re-reading it. It is on a topic (well, it’s on a lot of topics, actually) that is important to many of us; namely, our relationship with the broader evangelical movement and the very word itself. Is the label “evangelical” worth keeping (and who gets to use it)? There is one very good collection of essays about that topic (see Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning edited by Mouw’s good friend and successor, Mark Labberton) but we need more. And this is a truly lovely, thoughtful, honest, reasoned account of why Dr. Mouw — even with a bit of restlessness about it — still wants to call himself an evangelical. Look: Rich admits (and has some nice stories about it in this restless memoir) that he has always been a bit restless about the phrase and all it entails. At its best, the term communicates much about his own faith tradition and about the theological and spiritual truths and impulses that he thinks we need to affirm and experience. But, as we all know, evangelicalism has rarely been at its best and often is a hot mess, theologically, institutionally, and especially in terms of its social and political and culture witness. If mainstream evangelicalism has not been entirely seduced by the far right and Trumpian politics (as I maintain, by the way, that it mostly has not) it is because of, in part, the moderating voice of Rich Mouw and others in his movement.

I think the publisher is right to announce this book by saying “One of the most influential evangelical voices in America chronicles what it has meant for him to spend the past half a century as a “restless evangelical” — a way of maintaining his identity in an age when many claim the label “evangelical” has become so politicized that it is no longer viable.”

One publicity piece tells us:

Richard Mouw candidly reflects on wrestling with traditional evangelical beliefs over the years and shows that although his mind has changed in some ways, his core beliefs have not. He contends that we should hold on to the legacy that has enriched evangelicalism in the past.

In a way, Restless Faith is nearly another memoir like the fascinating Adventures in Evangelical Civility (it is conversational in tone with good stories and ruminations) but in it Mouw shows not just that he wrestled with other views with passionate but civil tones, but how he has come to grapple with issues that plagued him, topics that we must think about, issues that must be resolved within the broader church and within thoughtful evangelicalism. Mouw can do some very heady scholarship and some of his work in social ethics have been very well received within the scholarly world. But this is perfect for those of us who are “armchair theologians” and activists of a rather ordinary sort.

I will write more about this great book later, after it releases, as I’m sure it is a book we will want to tell many about. His own willingness to be a bit “restless” in holding his own convictions lightly, and offering a “lovers quarrel” with the church is a model for all of us. He is fair and honorable and wanting to be clear about the first things of the gospel. And he is willing to critique and challenge and ponder and hope for change in other matters. He’s one of those guys who, with a Reformed, worldviewish sort of accent, insists that we live by that Moravian slogan, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” This is a good introduction to what he thinks are the most essential truths of faith and the most important insights of the evangelical tradition.

“In Restless FaithRichard Mouw stakes out a thoughtful defense of evangelicalism as a spiritual and even intellectual tradition. Always compassionate, Mouw’s voice is a vital corrective to the invective that distinguishes some prominent evangelicals. You don’t need to be religious yourself to appreciate his earnest pursuit of truth and meaning in our divisive age.”
— Sarah Jones, staff writer for New York magazine

 

Rich Mouw has contributed much wisdom to Christian faith and life over many decades. This wonderful book continues that gift. With characteristic honesty, humility, and hope, Mouw acknowledges the restlessness of his own evangelical identity but then points a way forward to a generous and faithful expression of that identity. For other restless believers, this book contains needed ingredients: some correction, some coaxing, and plenty of celebration for God’s good gifts.”
— Leanne Van Dyk, Columbia Theological Seminary

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Jemar Tisby (Zondervan) $21.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $17.59 release date: 1/22/19

I know it would be different in other circles but for what it’s worth, I think among many of our social-media friends and customers, there is more of a buzz about this forthcoming book than nearly any other title this season. We are eager to sell it, and hope many will consider pre-ordering it now. In fact, now, if you pre-order, you can get some extra digital content at his website by showing your receipt from us.

Tisby is an impressive speaker, has presented at national conferences, and has penned eloquent, intelligent pieces in significant outlets such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. He is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. Perhaps you have heard him as the cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. He has a BA from Notre Dame and an MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary (and doesn’t that just make him that much more interesting.) As a PhD candidate studying history and social reform movements of the twentieth century, he is increasingly becoming an expert in this space, offering an historian’s eye, even if he is writing about the rise of the religious right, the “new Jim Crow” or  racial reconciliation in the age of #blacklivesmatters.

There are many broad histories of the atrocities against people of color; the classic Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett reminds us that slaves were brought to the shores of North America before The Mayflower. Books like Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (by Lisa Sharon Harper, Mae Cannon, Soong-Chan Rah, and Troy Jackson) give us passionate critique of compromised faith and serious complicity in injustices of various sorts. Of course we have dozens of such books in stock and even more on the project of enacting racial justice and finding racial reconciliation and equality. In my reading in this field, I think I can say that this book fills a much-needed gap and is an excellent resource to fill this niche. We need a solid history that isn’t dry or tedious but that is more than polemical.  We need a careful excavation of the roots of the sustained injustice in the American culture and church. Some have said some of this book is chilling; the gross injustices are not easy reading. Given that there has been an inadequate response from the church — particularly the large evangelical church — we need to continue to learn, to be informed, to study well ups and downs of race relations in the US.

As the publisher is quick to say:

Tisby does more than diagnose the problem. He charts a path forward with intriguing ideas that further the conversation as he challenges us to reverse these patterns and systems of complicity with the world.

Some have said this book offers a bold, courageous call for immediate action. Let’s hope so. Yet, we can be glad that, young scholar that he is, Mr. Tisby provides an accurate historical diagnosis and creative ideas, shared with what he calls “the urgency of now.” Like many others in our circle of friends and supporters, we are very eager to promote this important new book. Why not order a few and spread the word. This is a very important contribution.

Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom Adam L. Gustine (IVP) $17.00 / OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60 release date: 2/12/19

I cannot say too much about this as I have not yet seen it, but I am very, very excited. I have the table of contents and it looks extraordinary! As always, IVP does excellent work on racial justice and wholistic missional Kingdom stuff; this is in their Praxis line, an imprint very much about embodied best practices for the missional church. If a book is on their Praxis imprint, it is worth having. But this — this is one of those rare books that combines a deep passion for social justice and racial reconciliation and is designed to bring this big cultural assessment and Biblical vision down to the local church and its unique practices. Like many in the IVP Praxis imprint, Becoming a Just Church is academically strong without being tedious — it seems like it will be readable, exciting, even. Yes, it is about ecclesiology, but it is, as the first part puts it, “an ecclesiology for justice.” If justice is “a way of life for the people of God” and we are called to be, in our social situation of exile, “a prophetic alternative” then how do we live out the hope we have? What does that kind of a church look like? What does it mean to be “gardeners of shalom” in our lives, our communities, but, in Becoming a Just Church, in our local congregation?

This book, rooted well in the missional strategies Adam Gustine learned at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia (Dr. Gustine has a Doctor of Ministry degree from there) and is informed by his own deep expereince. He leads CovEnterprises, a social enterprise initiative of Love Mercy Do Justice and is the founder of Jubilee Ventures (in South Bend, Indiana.) I’m very, very excited about Becoming a Just Church so we can learn, as he puts it, to “demonstrate Manana.”  I’m eager to see how we “disciple people into a shalom community.” I can’t wait to read about justice within the church and equipping people — through acts of hospitality and acts of worship and more — to be agents of God’s vision of shalom.

“Adam Gustine writes with the heart of a pastor and the imagination of a prophet. Immersed in sincerity from Gustine’s ministry journey, this is a lived story of repentance, a testament of how personal―even ecclesial―privilege can cede to God’s transformative love. Becoming a Just Church provides a biblical approach for churches to seek shalom in their contexts, living as God’s demonstration for the world to witness with wonder. Like a hearty Sunday benediction, every chapter should inspire many to live into God’s dream of tomorrow for our world right now.”   José Humphreys, author, Seeing Jesus in East Harlem, pastor, Metro Hope Covenant Church, New York

Prayer: Forty Days of Practice Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59 release date: 2/5/19

We are very happy to tell you about this book again. Yes, that’s right: again! Our good friend singer-songwriter, author, podcast guru, justice worker, and retreat leader Justin McBob McRoberts and his pal painter Scott released this as a very handsomely done self-published book about two years ago. They team up at Jubilee in Pittsburgh most years and they cooked up this idea to do a prayer book together (maybe standing in the Hearts & Minds book display there, inspired by all our good volumes, although that may be a self-serving story I made up.)

This is a prayer book, or a book about praying, or a devotional, unlike any you’ve ever seen. Trust me, it has these edgy, very contemporary art pieces by Scott that are themselves worth the price of the book, but they illuminate these pithy Kingdom sayings that Justin created. How these two creatives sat still enough to evoke the Holy One to speak through them is a mystery but I am sure God is behind this thrilling little, allusive book. It is, as the publisher of this new edition insists, “An invitation to intimacy with God.” Justin and Scott themselves put it like this: “We designed this book as a way of inviting you to contemplate your own life, the lives of those yo love and the presence of God in , though, and around all of it.”

“Just one page of Prayer could change your life. Deep, beautiful, and centered, this book drives us ever closer to being people who love God and love each other. Justin’s reflections show evidence of someone who has spent a lot of time journeying with Jesus, and Scott’s illustrations are worthy of meditation. This book has helped me move deeper into the presence of God.”
—Matt Mikalatos, author of Good News for a Change

“Justin and Scott have compiled the most beautiful anthology of prayers and images, interwoven with suggestions for contemplation and spiritual practices. I’ve been using these words and pictures in my own devotional life for a couple of years. They have refreshed and renewed me. This book is a gift.”
—Michael Frost, author of Surprise the World and Keep Christianity Weird

“McRoberts and Erickson are flip artists: they take what is commonly assumed or known and flip it in unexpected ways, all for the sake of greater authenticity and deeper wisdom. Their book Prayer surprises, interrupts, explodes, confronts, and inspires. I encourage you to take up their invitation for Forty Days of Practice.”
—Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary

Prayer by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson is a gift of a book. Its compelling prayers and captivating images resonated deep in my soul. Sacred in its sincerity and simplicity, Prayer is a forty-day path we can walk together to live out the spiritual truths that make ourselves—and our world—uncompromisingly whole.”
—Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls and Well 

“In my home we have a special shelf where we keep sacred things of beauty. On the shelf are a few icons, seashells, the Book of Common Prayer, and this book, Prayer. Each person in my family—from children to adults—sits in quiet wonder as they flip these pages. This meditative and practical book brings together prayer, practices, and visual art to provide a feast for the soul. McRoberts and Erickson have created something beautiful, thoughtful, and mesmerizing.”
—Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

We are pleased that Waterbrook, owned by Random House, is re-issuing this little gem to a wider public. Astute observers might notice a different one of Scott Erickson’s artworks on the cover. By the way, they are working on a sequel, a new hardback which will be called May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lords Prayer that should be out in the fall of 2019. You can pre-order that from us, too, ya know.

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–And Why That’s Great News Peter Enns (HarperOne) $26.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59  release date: 2/19/19

I hope you know a little bit about the fascinating story and work of Dr. Pete Enns. He is a good Biblical scholar and has done some important, commentaries. His professional chops are solid. Alas, he was let go from a conservative Reformed seminary for not towing their line about absolutely inerrancy as he grappled with issues evident in careful studies of ancient manuscripts. (He wrote about his study of these problems in the Old Testament texts in his much-discussed Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.) Beneath and around this in-house discussion about how the early manuscripts are or are not utterly infallible is a bigger question and this has been Pete’s passion: what does it mean to reject the ways of knowing and certitude that science, perhaps, gives us, but that aren’t adequate appropriate for talking about, let alone experiencing, historic, warm, lively, Christian faith. Faith, of course, is more than intellectual assent to certain truths and, in the deepest Biblical and theological traditions, is more akin to trust. At Christmastime we just celebrated the very good news that God didn’t send to us a proposition, but a Person. And so Enns wrote an important book called The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs. It may not be a perfect book, but it is very, very important and highly recommended.

Alas, in the midst of that — defending his views of the Bible whilst losing his job as seminary prof — he wrote The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. And now, after that blistering critique of wrong ways to conceive of and approach the Bible he gives us a positive, thoughtful, faith-filled way that we should engage these sacred texts. I have not seen How the Bible Actually Works yet, but I respect him and know that this is going to be much discussed. I suspect that it is somewhat similar to, but also different than What Is The Bible by Rob Bell, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans and, perhaps, the novel by Brian McLaren (which is coming out in a new edition in March, by the way) The Story We Find Ourselves in: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian. There are plenty of other books which help us grapple with the best way to read the Scriptures — I’ve got some old favs and there are some very new ones — but I mention these together as they are all written in the spirit of what we might call post-evangelicalism. Each of these authors have drifted from previous, stricter views of how to read and obey the Bible and have now embraced more narrative approaches that are perhaps more congenial to our postmodern times but, more important, more consistent with how the Bible ought to be understood and read, anyway. Could it be that maybe earlier faith communities (before the West, at least, was mired in Enlightenment-based views of knowing and a certain approach to facts) understood the Bible better than some of our most logical thinkers today. In any event, that’s what these books are exploring. They are each on a journey out of some hard places and have embraced some new ways. And, as each book shows, they love the Bible, now, more than ever. I think Dr. Enns would say that, too. For what it is worth, he is a trained Biblical scholar and, although he writes well and this book is a popular-level exploration, he truly knows what he’s talking about.

I appreciate that Enns insists that the Bible is not a rule book or instruction manual but yet a powerful learning tool that “nurtures spiritual growth by refusing to provide easy answers but instead forces readers to acquire wisdom.”  I am looking forward to this and thought you, too, may want to pre-order it now.

Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits and Sacraments Dru Johnson (Eerdmans) $17.99 / OUR SALE PRICE $14.39  release date: 2/21/19

Although the cover of this maybe didn’t grab me at first, I am now convinced that the book is surely eloquent and righteous. Jamie Smith is not the only author who writes about “cultural liturgies” and while I truly adore Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary the fact that David Dark has the forward to this upcoming new one suggests that this is something more, perhaps a more thick account of our habits and rituals and even public policies. Dark, as you may know, is a relentlessly thoughtful, literary, justice-seeking, social prophet from the South. (Thanks be to God that his wise and interesting The Gospel According to America is being re-issued in in a much updated, considerably revamped edition late March with the important new title, The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land (WJK; $17.00.) You can pre-order that, too, and I surely encourage you to!

Dru Johnson is a young gent I’ve heard much of and I’m eager to read his words. His scholarly interests are significant and his contributions have spanned continents. Dr. Dru is an Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at The King’s College in New York City. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Henry Center (at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and formerly a research fellow at the University of St Andrews (working with the Logos Institute.) Holy smokes, he’s even been a Templeton Senior Research Fellow in Analytic Theology at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center (now called the Herzl Institute) in Jerusalem. And if all of that seems a bit stuffy, you may want to know that he was also a high-school dropout, skinhead, punk rock drummer, combat veteran, IT supervisor, and pastor. So he gets around.

But he also is pretty savvy about culture, about how we engage and live into the world in which we live. Drawing on Smith’s “cultural liturgy” project, he offers us this sure-to-be acclaimed new work inviting us to think seriously about this sort of question: “What are we doing when we gather around the sacraments — or when we make the same breakfast every morning?” We are, of course, embodying rituals. And in this new book he is going to unpack and open up all kinds of insights about this formative aspects of our day to day living. As the publisher says, Dru Johnson’s, Human Rites, “colorfully illustrates both the mundane and the sacred rituals that penetrate all of life, offering not only a helpful introduction to rituals but also a framework for understanding them. As he unpacks how rituals pervade eery areas of our lives, Johnson suggests biblical ways to focus our use of rituals ,habits, and sacraments so that we can see the world more truly through them.” It seems to me that this book is going to be a helpful witness to not only the liturgical aspects of culture, but of pointing us to a sacramental view of reality. If you like Smith or Warren, you need this.

Whether it is a baptism or a barbecue, Jewish passover or a church potluck, Johnson shows you how extraordinary our ordinary feats of repetition turn out to be. Michael Bird, Ridley College, Melbourne

Dru Johnson’s Human Rights helps us discern the difference between rites that are health and life-giving and those that are not, challenging us to lean in to the former while forsaking the latter. As a constant work in process myself, I commend to you this very helpful volume. Scott Sauls, pastor, Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville Tennessee

For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes Difference Miroslav Volf & Matthew Croasmun (Brazos Press) $21.99 / OUR SALE PRICE  $17.59 release date: 1/22/19 

I hope you noticed my little shout out about this, ever so briefly, in the previous BookNotes newsletter. I was reviewing a book by and about the life of singer-songwriter and justice advocate and global peacemaker, recording artist and Anglican priest, Garth Hewett. I said something about his art and his theology intertwining somehow, and that he sang about stuff that mattered and that there have been recent books about an evangelical vision for the common good that explore the same sorts of themes that Hewett sings and writes about.  Theology, good theology, like healthy spirituality, must always bear fruit deepening our love for the world God so loves and equip us to be faithful in our engagement with our times. Professor Volf knows this and is an acclaimed “public theologian” whose books have this keen perception of the issues of the day and whose study yields deeper insights about being alive in and for the world.

This forthcoming work — out in the next few weeks — is asking a huge question, and that is, if it doesn’t sound too grand, “what makes life worth living?” In fact, Volf is involved in the significant Yale Center for Faith and Culture where his co-author, here, Matthew Croasmun, directs the Life Worth Living program. They are doing research into this fundamental, human question and then — yes! — asking how to do theology in light of that, or in conversation with that human research. In a way, this must be a major concern of any theology that hopes to get a hearing in our pluralistic, pluralizing, post-Christian (post secular?) world. The question of what constitutes a flourishing life is up for grabs (or is just as often just neglected in our universities, business’s, and even churches!)

“The vision for theology presented here is simple but not easy. Volf and Croasmun think our task as theologians is to be about the flourishing not only of the academy or the church but also of all peoples. Their work is tested in the hard laboratory of professors’ classrooms and church planters’ living rooms. I challenge you to read this book and not come away encouraged, enlightened, and renewed for our task of contemplating God for the good of humanity. So much of what passes for theology dies in intramural food fights and name calling. This book calls us to a task more urgent, more dangerous, and more life-giving by far than that.”
— Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology

By the way, we heard of Matthew Croasmun a year or two ago when he edited, along with Zoran Grozdanov and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, a collection of essays in honor of his teacher, Miroslav Volf called Envisioning the Good Life. This summer we discovered his Upper Room book Let Me Ask You a Question: Conversations with Jesus. Nice stuff.

The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament Aubrey Sampson (NavPress) $15.99 / OUR SALE PRICE = $12.79 release date: 2/5/19

This stunning book comes out in less than a month and we hope to alert many to it. It’s very well written and exceptionally thoughtful. I will admit, there are oodles of spiritual books that tell of the great suffering people have gone through. God helps folks cope, and it is a great grace. Some of the stories are heart breaking and heart warming. Whether they are beautifully rendered or plain, there is something moving about reading the stories of others journey into the depths and coming back out, chastened, sobered, but alive and still loving God and God’s people.

I have an allergy to books which offer cliches, though, or answers that sound too easy. Some of these sorts of books about making sense of suffering tend that way and we avoid recommending them. It is hard to match the pained, spare eloquence of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son or the hard-won but faithfully raw insight of Gerald Sittser’s A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.

And so, I’ll admit, when I read the long list of tragedies that befell this young woman — herself struck with a painful, chronic illness — I feared it would just be another rather sentimental story of God’s love for her through it all, fine but not terribly substantive.  But, my-oh-my, is this a strong, thoughtful, gripping book. Yes, Aubrey Sampson has suffered more than most, and yes, she tells about her grief and loss and struggle and pain. But this is also an apologetic for and study of lament, one of the few very good books on this topic. In The Louder Song she explores what it is like to have exploding grief and to be able to cry out; how, indeed, God uses lament to lead us between (as she puts it) “The Already and Not Yet.”

Ms. Sampson says,

“God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song of renewal and restoration. Lament helps us hear God’s louder song.”

I really appreciate her shameless honesty, her devout piety, her robust faith, and mature spirituality. I liked her stories. And I commend her good scholarship — she is not just writing out of her own experience, rich and formative as it is, but she’s done the reading and thinking and processing of good Biblical and theological scholarship. How many evangelical testimonials of this sort integrate the insights about lament from, say Claus Westermann [who I first read because Brueggemann cited him so much] or the old Puritan Thomas Watson or modern thinker N.T. Wright? To see an author quoting Bono and Soong-Chan Rah and Lament for a Son and Marva Dawn and, of course, Michael Card’s Sacred Sorrow shows she’s got a thoughtful, balanced, creative, approach. To see Tim Keller and Anne Lamott in the same book makes me smile. To draw on progressive Africans like Mpho Tutu and stuffy Anglos like C.S. Lewis (and a quote from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Marriage Plot) shows this is super interesting and well-edited.

There is a good listing of Bible verses on which those who are suffering can draw upon. There’s a thorough guide-book full of discussion questions for personal or group use.

The Louder Song is a strong, important book and we highly recommend it. On sale for pre-order now.

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A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Hearts & Minds is the US source for “Against the Grain” by UK singer/activist Garth Hewitt

Those that know us, know that we have been involved for much of our adult lives in social justice activism. I’ve been feeble in this, perhaps, more talk than walk, way too often, taking steps in spurts and with grave failures. My conservative, small-town mother made me pick up littler on the first Earth Day in 1970 — how our small United Methodist youth group got that pick-up and big green Earth Day flag I don’t recall — and she and my Republican dad taught me about befriending Vietnamese refugees (“Boat People” they were referred to in those early post-Viet Nam years) which served me well when I had to get deeply involved in working for reform of political asylum laws under the awful Clinton administration as we struggled to keep them from deporting Chinese immigrants, imprisoned in York, PA.  From serving in soup kitchens to doing peace demonstrations to working in pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, from being arrested in nonviolent protest against nukes to lobbying in DC with organizations like Bread for the World and Amnesty International, these shoes, as singer Bruce Cockburn puts it, “have seen some strange streets.”

Which is why Cockburn has so appealed to me as a rock star over the years. Along with the Indigo Girls, Bill Mallonee, Mark Heard, Holly Near, Bono, Larry Norman, Jackson Browne, and lots of soul singers and and a tons of hip-hop artists, rockers of good faith (often evangelical faith) and strong musical chops used their artful talents to help us see and feel things, including hearing the cries of the oppressed and even about the structures that too often keep people down.(Ahhh, I once had a long conversation with CCM star Randy Stonehill, a wonderful lyricist and guitar player, about why he only rarely did songs about poverty and compassion and never any denouncing injustice, like the Bible itself does. On his next album he recorded the blistering “Can Hell Burn Hot Enough” that was like Ron Sider or Jim Wallis or maybe Amos put to rock.) That the Bible itself is laden with protest music, social lament, and the prophetic denunciation of economic injustice and political abuse should go without saying. although some people need scholars like Walter Brueggemann to see it. Increasingly, even those who before thought of the Bible as mostly about spiritual things and proper theology realize that so much of the Bible is about land and politics and economics and cultural idolatries and social renewal. (Jerry Falwell Jr., by the way, supports the policies and values of the current President because he says “I don’t look to the Bible for my politics.” Allrightee, then; at least he’s honest about that.)

We may interpret some of this social theology in the Bible in ways that seem rather liberal and revolutionary (liberation theology, for instance, or the good social gospel of Martin King and the like) or in more conservative, traditionalist ways (some of the best thinking of Popes Benedict and John Paul II and their social proclamations that sounded more like Alexis De Tocqueville or Lord Acton than Karl Marx) or ways that go beyond the conventional left/right spectrum altogether; I’d love to put the Dutch neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper and his modern followers such as the Center for Public Justice in that camp. Friends such as Vincent Bacote and Richard Mouw and James K.A. Smith have helped me immensely in this and I hope you know their work.

In any case, the Bible and our faith must be seen in ways that are, as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis has put it, “always personal but never private” and in what that are, in the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, in Until Justice and Peace Embrace, “world transformative” rather than “world flight.” You know we love the book The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper. She shows that Biblical hope is for “everything wrong to be made right.”

Happily, lots of recent books these days shout this out clearly. Just for instance, Whitaker House is a revivalist/charismatic publisher and they just released a book called Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, The Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change by John Barry, an pastor and editor of the FaithLife Study Bible. Earlier this year, Grace Ji-Sun Kim co-wrote Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World. (A month ago I even wrote a review essay in CPJ’s Public Justice Review about of some of these recent books.) These evangelical books are delightfully and importantly clear about the full implications of the gospel.

 A recent collection of essays by N.T. Wright about “speaking truth to power” is simply called God in Public. A nice paperback by Miroslav Volf (on which I happen to have an endorsing blurb) is called A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good and, as you will hear about in our next BookNotes, he has a brand new one coming soon called For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Yes! That’s it!

Music has been my other great love through this journey of trying to do “theology that makes a difference” and to live some sort of life that speaks out about public issues. Much of my life, I’ll admit, I’ve been discouraged about all this, and music has kept me going. I’ve mentioned Bruce Cockburn. My pal Brian Walsh has written the very best book about how an artfully Christian imagination can address so very much about the world we live in, in his careful study of Cockburn’s lyrics and social vision called Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press; $19.00.) Even if you haven’t read this book (and you should, even if you don’t know about his many albums!) you might have heard of Cockburn. Even U2 cited him in their song “God Part 2” making famous his line about “kicking at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.” And I’ve sometimes quoted his blazing powerhouse rocker “Call It Democracy” which I’ve quipped is the only rock song about the International Monetary Fund.

Which is all a very long way of introducing the fabulous new book by a British musician named Garth Hewitt called Against the Grain: Choices on a Journey with Justice (published by the Garth Hewitt Foundation) $20.00; our sale price = $16.00.

It is a long way of saying that Anglican Garth Hewitt is a singer-songwriter that early on we realized had an artistic vision that was bigger and broader than the sometimes sappy Jesusy songs from CCM, a 70s folkster with a truly Christian worldview, maybe akin to Mark Heard, who increasingly was singing not only about God’s sly presence in all of life, but, in fact, particularly about social justice. Garth Hewitt, in this regard, is maybe the example par excellance of a socially-engaged, activist, pop star doing music with a message. He was a bigger deal in the UK than he was here (in part because British evangelicals have long been more socially engaged than American evangelicals, what with leaders like John Stott, so they had their political and artistically vivid Greenbelt Festival and we had our safe and inspirational Creation Festival. Greenbelt features Cockburn and Billy Bragg and Calvin Seerveld and Over the Rhine and Nicaraguan Catholic poet, Ernesto Cardenal, for instance. Creation dis-invited Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo because he didn’t toe the Christian right-wing line enough.) So it’s no wonder most of us never heard much of Garth Hewitt.

There are reasons Garth’s many good albums weren’t terribly well known here (besides the practical matter of distribution — how does a very indie artist from England get albums in US record stores, especially if he is too religious for the mainstream record shops and too politically outspoken and intelligent for the Christian bookstore scene?)  I think a reason is this: he spent a lot of his time traveling all over the world, not being a pop star.

As a spokesperson for many wholistic ministry organizations such as TearFund, Mr. Hewitt went places. He listened and learned. He got involved. If Bruce Cockburn travelled a lot and wrote some truly great songs about his travels from war zones and refugee camps and such, and did properly allusive/aesthetic musical reporting, Hewitt actually worked in those places. He spent less time making records (although he made a lot) and more times making change. He did what he felt called to, and lived and learned as a faith-based social activist. His work among the suffering informed his take on the world and the sorts of music he did. He’s an artist and a minister; he’s a songwriter for justice and also a spokesperson, scholar, leader, organizer of a nonprofit organization.

He recounts in the book how a music publisher trying to be helpful said his songs were “too intelligent.” The professionals advice? He should write songs that were “less intelligent.” So you can see why we want to support this book here in the States.

So, Against the Grain is Hewitt’s new book published in the UK and we here at Hearts & Minds are delighted to stock it. As noted above, it is published by the Garth Hewitt Foundation (and Amos Trust) and they have allowed us to sell it for a fabulous price of $20.00. We are offering our BookNotes 20% off, making it just $16.00. We are honored to be able to offer this oversized paperback to you. It is a book of one gent’s pilgrimage, his life-long, world-wide, joyful (if often hard) exploration of what it means that “the personal is political.”

Hewitt has a Palm Sunday song called “Against the Grain” which reminds us bluntly of the nature of Jesus’s community, inspired by the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, even though perhaps other kings were entering the city that day with their war horses and violent view of power. Which will we embrace, the nonviolent one standing against the grain or the powerful of the Empire?

Against The Grain

Against the Grain is in many ways an auto-biography but it is written more like a fan-bio than a literary memoir. You learn about his many albums, his ordination, his mission trips. He’s in the studio bumping into Paul McCartney, he’s protesting abuse of Palestinians during a concert in Bethlehem. He’s working hard to get the sound right with Mark Heard doing production, he’s heading to perform here or there. But it is artful, laden with poems and song lyrics and the stories behind the songs which makes it interesting even if you’ve never heard any of his music.There’s lots of episodes from his struggles to make a difference and great stories of his life on the road as a peacemaking, justice-seeking Christian troubadour. The declaration on the cover, in fact, tells us much: it’s a “mixture of stories, theology, wisdom, music, humour — all building together to say something really important… but gently.” This truly is “the story of singer-songwriter, priest, author and activist Garth Hewitt, in his own words.”

Did I mention the pictures? Yes, there’s a lot of cool, full-color shots with him playing his banged up guitar. He’s toting that thing everywhere like a post-modern Woody Guthrie, whose anti-Hitler guitar had emblazoned on it “This Machine Kills Fascists.” But, again, Hewitt is a follower of Jesus, and isn’t interested in killing anyone. His guitar should say something like “This instrument help us love.”

But the pictures even more clarify his work with others of note. There he is with Bono; there’s pictures of him with Bruce Cockburn, several with Mark Heard. He has met with Yasser Arafat and there’s a shot of him with Desmond Tutu. Who gets around like this? Hewitt has had a remarkable life (he heard Martin Luther King live; he has met Mother Theresa!) Those who have sung with him and on his recordings range from straight man Cliff Richards to black gospel groups like Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Jessy Dixon Singers. Reading Against the Grain is a blast for anyone who follows music as the names just keep coming, naturally (not bragging) as his lifetime in the music industry has afforded him lots of cool collaborations. One minute he’s writing about Oscar Romero or Elias Chacour, the next there’s a picture of him with Pat Boone. One page he’s talking about Larry Norman and the next one has a sidebar about Mavis Staple. Often, he is with his wife, Gill, a true companion. And he’s always citing books and writing poems and prayers.

Hewitt, it is said, writes “redemption songs and then sings them without fear.” From working with the Dalits in India and the abused Palestinians in Gaza and peasants in Africa longing for faith and justice, he and Gil have been there. This is the story of a thoughtful Christian, a global activist, and a dynamic performing artist. It isn’t every overtly Christian book that carries endorsements from Muslim leaders and serious singer-songwriters like Martyn Jospeh, himself quite an artful singer/activist.

Mr. Jospeh says

I deeply respect Garth’s integrity and his commitment to social justice worldwide. The full extent of his humble hand in these matters may never be known, but this book will spread the word of a life that has affects thousands of people globally for the betterment of their lives, and the pursuit of a peace that finds justice.

This book offers si much fun stuff to hear about, even if often only in passing — he’s a godparent to a child (now grown) whose other godparent is Eric Clapton. Early on Hewitt did some gigging with Bonnie Bramlet; he describes talking to one of the Rolling Stones about Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; in those years he was listening to early Gram Parsons, who truly helped pave the way for a new thing called folk-rock. His serious theological reading is evident, too, and you’ll be excited to see who he reads and who he gets to know. Anyone reading about wholistic mission will be eager to learn from him. He takes the reader along on his journey and it is one that is exciting and sober and good. We are so happy to be able to offer this book at our Booknotes discount. Thanks to the GHF and Amos Trust for inviting us to be their US contact. What an honor!

 

In passing allow me to also note that we have stocked some of his classy photo/prayer books such as Making Holy Dreams Come True: A Book of Prayers and Meditations and we have reviewed and continue to recommend his splendid book from 2014, Occupied Territories: The Revolution of Love from Bethlehem to the Ends of the Earth (IVP; $16.00.) It is very highly recommended, so we’d love to send one of those out for you, too. You will learn a lot and be inspired by his very interesting life and teaching. Thanks for caring.

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Twelve Days of Christmas Sale: 12 (Advent) Books on sale for 12 Days at (an extra) 12 Percent off — 32% OFF until January 5th

12/12/12 SALE

Merry Christmas, H&M friends scattered far and wide. We hope your Advent was meaningful as we pondered the hard times in which we live and the true hope of God’s coming again to make good on the promises of restoration, completing the work of incarnation and redemption. As our friend Lisa Sharon Harper puts it in the subtitle of her must-read book about reconciliation within the Biblical narrative, The Very Good Gospel, we look for “how everything wrong can be made right.”  Or, in C.S. Lewis’s simple phrase, we want God to heal the situation of being “always Winter but never Christmas.” Indeed, once Aslan is on the move in Narnia, “winter began stirring backwards” in what some call the “great reversal.” Christ has come! Christmas is here! The curse is being reversed!  We eagerly now sing “Joy to the World” but the time of Advent reminded us that the story is not yet finished, that we endure much in this broken world and that Jesus will return and make all things (re)new(ed.) Far as the curse is found!

Now, we are in the joyous 12 Days of Christmas. Don’t you dare take your tree down yet and don’t stop singing the carols! Given that the wise men gave gifts to baby Jesus (on what we now call Epiphany) you can’t even put that gift wrap away yet. Are you excited?  Merry Christmastime!

Of course, like any other retail place, we have to have “after Christmas” sales, but we want to reconfigure this, with tongue just a little bit in cheek, as a 12 Days of Christmas Sale. After all, it can’t be an “after Christmas” sale when we are in the middle of Christmas-time!

To wit. For the next 12 Days these 12 Advent books are an extra 12% off. We had ’em at 20% off before, so now they are, until supplies run out, discounted to 32% off. You can read these yet this season, or hold them until next year when you can use them or give them as gifts or start a book club. Stock up now. This sale ends January 5th, 2019.

Here are 12 books on sale for 12 days for an extra12 percent off. 12/12/12 — get it?

Again, that extra 12% off = 32% off. While supplies last. Offer expires January 5, 2019.

Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ Rev. Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans)  $30.00

If I get around to doing our annual Best Books Awards in a week or two, this will surely be on the top of that list. What an amazing collection of sermons, 400 pages of them, some quite extensive, some shorter, some from Sunday morning services, others maybe from evening services, preached over many years, many in her own parish in New York City. This meaty but beautiful work comes at us with what Duke theologian and Bible scholar Richard Hays described as “the same elemental force as the preaching of John the Baptist” and what poet and writer Marilyn McEntyre called, “Invigorating — edgy, intelligent, unflinching, and joyful in all it reclaims.” This is very, very highly recommended for anyone wanting to understand what Advent is supposed to be about —  namely, training us to live “between the times” as we long for God’s ways and Christ’s second coming. It is interesting that the liturgical color for Advent is the same purple as in Lent. This season is no “countdown to Christmas” but a time of lament and social prophecy, personal and corporate repentance, and living into apocalyptic hope. This book is important and a true gift to our deepening understanding of living between the times.

Advent Conspiracy: Making Christmas Meaningful (Again) Rick McKinley, Chris Seay & Greg Holder (Zondervan) $14.99  Every year we convince somebody to use (and they thank us!) the Advent Conspiracy DVDs where these three youngish, hip, pastors share with Biblical acumen and honest communication just how hard it is to preach during Advent, how so many church folks are seduced — maybe even against their will and better judgement — by the materialism of the mall and the sentimentalism of our current views of the holidays. Whose birthday is it anyway? How can we subvert those tellings of the tale, and get back to the raw and edgy and controversial and somewhat disturbing narratives of the Bible itself? The videos are clever and interesting and upbeat; the book is fantastic. These pastors joined together to take the risk of inviting their congregants to spend less, give more, worship well, and love everybody. They expected a lot of push-back, it seems, but folks were relieved; you mean we don’t have to live like this, enduring this stress and debt and anxiety in December? Members young and old from all three churches agreed — we can say no to the secularized narrative and search out another set of practices, grounded in the truest meaning of the story. Now there’s some subversive stuff!

The Advent Conspiracy book is so good, and I very highly recommend it. Don’t be scared — you can do it!  If we don’t sell a few more of these I will be depressed for months, so come on! If you don’t need help “substituting compassion for consumption” maybe you don’t need these four simple but powerful countercultural concepts to guide you and yours. But I think this experiment, this project, this conspiracy, could be a great thing for you and yours. I’m not just saying this: almost everybody who uses this in December says they wish they’d have studied it sooner in the year. You really should get it now and plan something for next year. (This is, by the way, the newly revised and expanded 2018 edition of the book. We’ve got the DVD, too, if you’re interested.)

The One True Story: Daily Readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus Tim Chester (The Good Book Company) $7.99  You may recall us saying (in either this year’s Advent newsletter blog or maybe last years) that this is truly one of the very best books to show the unfolding drama of Scripture as it moves us towards the “dawn of redeeming grace.” In fact, it may be that Christ’s coming is more the beginning of the conclusion and fuller consummation of a longer story, since the dawn was hinted at in covenant and hope and promise in stories from Genesis onward. That’s what this book is about. The One True Story paperback has 24 short meditative readings on bible stories, including ideas for reflection, prayer, and even application. These devotionals truly offer Bible-based, gospel-centered, promise and deliverance, hope and joy. HIi

Advent for Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles N.T. Wright (WJK) $16.00 Who wouldn’t want to dip into daily devotionals by one of the world’s leading Christian writers? The provides “an inspirational guide through the Advent season, from the first Sunday in Advent to the Saturday after the Fourth Sunday in Advent.” You get Tom’s own translation of the Pauline texts and his discussion of key themes, fro thanksgiving and patience, humility and joy.

Advent for Everyone: Luke N.T. Wright (WJK) $16.00 This is the new month-long, Advent devotional from Wright, about which the super-smart former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “Tom Wright is, as always, brilliant at distilling immense scholarship into vivid, clear, and accessible form.” This is so true — and this is a great example. Clear as a bell, powerful, inspiring, it explores the gospel themes of faith, repentance, justice, and celebration.

Blue Christmas: Devotions of Light in a Season of Darkness Todd Outcalt (Abingdon) $9.99 I think this is so good, so important, so helpful, and I invite you to buy one or two on sale and wait for the opportunity to share them with somebody you know. This devotional accompanies the reader through the four weeks of Advent with Scripture, meditation, prayer and suggested application, as many such books do, but with an expectation that the reader gloomy or sad, in grief or perplexed with hard times. Can those walking in darkness find comfort in the Light? Even though this season often magnifies loneliness and anxiety (and sometimes despair) with “death’s dark shadows” this honest devotional “meets people where they are — in their hurts, fears, and disappointments.”

Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations David Bannon (Paraclete Press) $29.99  I raved about this earlier in the season, explaining that Bannon is himself a bit of a hurting man (he’s had some of his own struggles and his adult daughter died in an awful story.) Alas, he has been drawn to paintings that evoke lament and that honor the grief of these hard times. The paintings are mostly older, classic, even (Gauguin, Delacroix, Van Gogh, and more) and often done by artists who themselves were facing deep disappointments. Besides his own informative and tender prose, Bannon adds remarkable lines from poets and writers and thinkers — from N.T. Wright to Barbara Brown Taylor, Philip Yancey, Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Paul Tournier, Joan of Arc, and more. He shares a bit about the latest research on grief. Yet, these rich daily reflections are more than an admitted “pilgrimage of brokenness.” Wounded in Spirit is a book of lovely, tangible hope. We sold out of this in the first week after we highlighted it and ordered more. A few customers even re-ordered, having given away the one they purchased from themselves. We have a stack still, now, so why not pick one up at this extra discounted price? I assure you, it will be useful to read at any time of year and a favorite you will return to over and over.

Time to Get Ready: An Advent, Christmas Reader to Wake Your Soul  Mark A. Villano (Paraclete Press) $16.99  We raved about this in an earlier Advent BookNotes newsletter — Villano has a MDiv from Catholic University, has done campus ministry, he has an MFA from the School of Cinematic Arts at USC so has done some pretty nifty stuff. I’m impressed. This substantive book is both gentle and deeply in the tradition of contemplative formation even as it is richly colorfu and culturally relevant  Endorsements are from contemplatives like Ron Rolheiser and Wilkie Au. Rose Pacatte says it “breathes silence and grace as Villano draws from Scripture, literature, film and life to create this gentle tome for Advent.”  Nice.

Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete Press) $18.99  We have often touted this and the others in her trilogy of “prayer books” filled with literary quotes and poems, excerpts of novels and stories, good lines for devotional use, offered for daily and weekly settings. The others are At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time and Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. All are handsome paperbacks with “French Fold” covers, full of good lit, classic and contemporary, artful and useful. Endorsements on the back from the likes of musician and theological aesthetics scholar Jeremy Begbie and poet Luci Shaw and lit prof Jilll Pelaez Baumgaertner are, understandably, enchanting.

By the way, you might know Sarah Arthur’s name from a devotional she did called Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through the Lord of the Rings, or for last year’s award winning co-written memoir about discipleship, The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, or, more recently, her marvelous, A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle.

God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Reader’s Edition) edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe (Paraclete Press) $18.99 This has been a perennial best seller for us, especially back when it was loaded with full color art. Alas, this is not that, but as a “Reader’s Edition” focuses one’s attention on the wisdom and eloquence and deep insight of authors Beth Bevis, Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson and Luci Shaw. Pennnoyer & Wolfe (formerly editor of Image journal) used their thoughtful theological and aesthetic training to bring beautiful writing to us in what remains on of our era’s most remarkable Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany resources.

Jesus Calling for Christmas Sarah Young (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  I suppose you know the mega-selling Jesus Calling and the others in that hugely popular series of books. Their genre is simple and moving — author Sarah Young imagines what it might be like if Jesus wrote a real letter to her, offering presence and assurance and comfort and joy. Of course, this is all imagined, so you needn’t listen to any grouchy critics that suggest she implies these are “real” revelations like some new age prophecy. No, this is just an imaginative, time-worn genre, doing a short, touching devotional format supposing God is calling out to us, writing to us personally. Kinda like the incarnation, eh?

This square sized book has a nice padded cover edition, a bit bigger than the palm-sized Jesus Calling, Jesus Waiting, and Jesus Lives.  There are plenty of Biblical texts and much evangelical tenderness. By the way, the inside of Jesus Calling for Christmas is laden with beautiful, full-color, wintery photos, making this just a beautiful little gift book for this time of year; the nice cover hardly does it justice. It is all very nicely presented and a very nice book. We’ve got some left, so order them while supplies last.

 

 

 

 

O Wisdom: Advent Devotions on the Names of Jesus Rachel Jones, editor (Forward Movement) $7.00  This is a nice little devotional of short daily readings (and a few poems and lots of quotes from the Book of Common Prayer) all drawing on and pointing us to the “O Antiphons.” There are bidding prayers and collects from St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle and woodcuts from St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Nashville but the writing is a compilation of various writers, mostly ordinary folks, each drawing on the names of Jesus as presented in Isaiah.

As it says on the back, “Songs of thanks and praise, of lament and longing, or restoration and return have been on our lips for millennia. The verse of the ancient hymn, the O Antiphons, explore and celebrate the many names of Jesus.” These prayers have been used since at least, if not before, the 8th century and present a way for us to “sing along with the story of God, to ponder and praise.”

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Hearts & Minds Christmas gift-giving ideas — novels, poems, and children’s books. 20% OFF (in time for Christmas)

We are quite sure that if you order from us in the next day or two you will still get your order before Christmas. USPS Priority Mail is often quicker than UPS and cheaper, too, so we can get a shipment from here in central Pennsylvania to you in less than a week. Unless there’s problems from bad weather or Santa’s sleigh gets in the way, we’re confident you can receive your package within the week.

Also, as we’ve said before, we’re happy to send a package directly to your loved one on your behalf. We’ll gift wrap it for free (unless you don’t want us to) and enclose a note saying it is from you. Just tell us at the website order form page (or the inquiry page_ what to say and how to sign your name.  We’ll confirm it within the day.

Here are just a very few ideas of more books to give. We’ll explain them in such as way as to give you a hint as to who might enjoy such a gift. Many of these you may know, and this may serve as a reminder. Giving a novel is a great idea, and it gives you a chance to talk about the story, the plot, the characters, the deeper values or worldview of the characters or author with others. What fun!

We know we won’t get an overwhelming response to this (we usually don’t when we highlight novels or kids books) so we’ll admit we don’t have tons of copies of these on the shelves. I guess I should say, without too much of Grinchy spirit, that our expectation to get them out in time for Christmas eve is only good while supplies last. (But, of course there’s the 12 days of Christmas coming up, and Epiphany, so there’s plenty of time for more holiday gift-giving then.)

NOVELS

Virgil Wander: A Novel Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press) $27.00 What a solid hardback, what a long-awaited book. I know a number of folks (including a few Christian non-fiction authors and bloggers) who say Mr. Enger’s Peace Like a River is one of their all-time favorite stories — mysterious, dramatic, poignant, tender as it is. He’s a great talent, a fabulously interesting storyteller, and a solid Midwestern “American Balladeer” as NPR called him. In this story, Virgil is the owner of a small town cinema who, after a car accident, loses much of his memory and is trying to piece his life back together Can the whole down-on-their-luck town find renewal along with the other cast of characters seeking some kind of redemption? This has gotten good reviews at all the most respected places and I’m sure will be used as book clubs choices. It would make a fine gift idea.

The Solace of Water: A Novel Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 This is one of those novels that some serious readers may not know about. Yes, it is an Amish story; yes, it is on a religious publishing house. Amish romances by evangelical authors have become quite the thing, and some are okay and some are pretty cheesy. This story, though, is remarkable. It is set in central Pennsylvania in the 1950s as an African American family moves there from the deep South and the wife and grieving mother is befriended by a wife and grieving mother of the Anabaptist Amish community. Kudos to Byler Younts and Nelson publishing for doing such a daring, moving book that tells a good story and pulls readers in to a study of grief and isolation and friendship and differences.

As the publisher says it is “Eminently relevant to the beauty and struggle in America today…”  The Solace of Water is a fine, enjoyable, thoughtful read.

Lights on the Mountain: A Novel Cheryl Anne Tuggle (Paraclete Press $17.99 This, too, is set in Pennsylvania, this time out in Western PA farmland. The story is written by an Orthodox writer and is set on a farm, and is about farming. (Move over Wendell Berry I can hear some saying!)  Young Jess Hazel, the main character in the story, inherits his parents farm when he loses them in a farm accident.  As it says on the back cover, “Unable to shake the memory of a strange light he has seen hovering the mountain peak above his valley home, he embarks on a pilgrimage — a halting inner odyssey riddled with fits and false starts.”

This story picks up speed as it goes but even from the prelude readers know this is a very artful, intelligent writer, and it will be savored slowly as good literary fiction often is.  She has a poetic voice and the story is, as one reviewer put it, “as deep and rich as the ancient ground beneath the character’s feet.”

Paraclete Press does mature spiritual books, ecumenical and contemplative resources, mostly non-fiction that is always very well done. They have a few books about aesthetics and the arts, too, so they truly have a vision for making a distinctive contribution to the publishing world. When they do novels, they are certainly well worth owning.

Their last one, by the way, called Can You See Anything Now by Wheaton College alum Katherine James was stunning for both Beth and I; it was really engaging, very modern and creative and thought-provoking — you can read our review by searching at our BookNotes. And older one published by Paraclete that we love and which was slightly updated not too long ago, is a wonderful book about woman who does old painting restorations — which speaks volumes in quiet ways about the restoration of humans, too, entitled Unveiled by Suzanne Wolfe ($16.99.) Interestingly, they published years ago another novel about a woman working her farm; it is one of my all time favorites, called This Heavy Silence by Nicole Mazzarella ($16.00.) These three previous ones will be joined by Lights on the Mountain by Cheryl Anne Tuggle as a standard we’ll recommend here for someone who wants a well written story that is deeply aware of spiritual issues and the nature of the human soul, but doesn’t quite feel like “contemporary Christian fiction.”  Give Lights… a try and you’ll know what we mean. Highly recommended!

Love Big Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church Winn Collier (Eerdmans) $16.99 This may be the fifth or sixth time we’ve recommend this here at BooKnotes and those who have allowed us to speak up front at their gatherings where we have book displays will know that I’ve promoted it vigorously. We often say that pastors and church leaders should read it because, well, even though it is a novel, it gets at the nature of congregations and the meaning of church so well. That quote from Eugene Peterson is an author’s dream. I cite it all the time when trying to convince people to read this book.

Pastor Peterson wrote that Love Big Be Well is

A tour de force — an angle on understanding the life of both congregation and pastor that exceeds anything I have ever read.

Here, though, ho-ho-ho, I want to suggest this as a fun Christmas present to anyone who likes a good story. There’s tons of good theology in the letters the fictional Jonas McGann writes to the somewhat cranky congregants and the Granby Presbyterian Church in small town Virginia. But even though this novel is comprised of pastoral letters from Jonas, he tells of this episode or that situation, the ups and downs of the various people in his flock or in the town. The stories unfold, the plot thickens, and there are ups and downs as there would be in any such slow-moving, quiet sort of novel set in such a place. One of my favorite writers, Robert Benson says about Collier, “I never fail to read anything that he writes. If you are a lover of words and wisdom on the printed page, you should read him, too. This book is a fine place to start.” This is good, honest stuff, a story about church life by a real-life pastor. It is fun and interesting and, as Benson says, wise and good for anyone who is a lover of words. Get some for fiction lovers on your list, or for those left-brained theology types who don’t think they like novels. This is one they will love. Get one for yourself, too, while you’re at it.

Unsheltered: A Novel Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) $29.99  I finished this a week ago and am still pondering it. This is profound and complicated but the short version is this: every other chapter tells of the lives of two families that reside in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, one in the late 1800s and one in contemporary times. The house is falling apart which becomes an obvious metaphor for their struggles as families and for the town itself. Did you know that Vineland was an early planned community (founded by a guy named Landis who later moved to Central Pennsylvania?) Much of the plot of the story of the first family, set in the 1800s, is about a science teacher and, without spoiling too much, a character who is corresponding with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, and a renegade newspaperman who is telling the truth about some of Landis’s injustices.  The contemporary story — in that same house — is about an adjunct college prof and his wife, who is taking care of a brand new grand-baby (whose mother, their daughter in law, committed suicide shortly after childbirth.) There’s a lot of politics in this as you’d expect from the ecologically-minded, lefty Kingsolver (one of the daughters of the contemporary couple just got back from living in Cuba for a while and disapproves of her brother’s work in the financial sector.)  The New York Times review said

This is fiction rich in empathy, wit, and science… Kingsolver’s gifts are ‘fierce and wondrous’ with ‘colors moving around like fire.’

There is some vulgar language here but, still, Unsheltered is a novel which, as the Washington Post Book World review put it, “is on familiar terms with the eternal.”  I don’t know about that, but it is seeking a better world, asking big questions about meaning and life and death and love and goodness. I admire the talents and vision of the author and I enjoyed this complex book immensely. Maybe only because of Darwin’s role in the plot, it reminded me a bit of one of my all time favorite novels, the extraordinary, unforgettable The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead; $17.00.)

Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel Jonathan Miles (Hogarth/Random House) $27.00 Speaking of vulgar, vulgar novels that are about God and faith and the meaning of things, I adored Anatomy of a Miracle (and the previous, very thought provoking novel by Miles, Dear American Airlines and, especially, Want.) As I said in my BookNotes review this summer, he is theologically aware (quoting C.S. Lewis and others about the theodicy question) and portrays different sorts of skeptics, seekers, believers, and charlatans, all really, really well. In this story, a handicapped Afghanistan war vet one day just gets up out of his wheelchair while heading to the local convenience store to buy some smokes. (You can see this is the book cover, which I don’t love, but is, admittedly clever.) The parking lot of Biz-E-Bee, right there in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi, becomes a pilgrimage site as others seeking healing flock there. In the meantime both a serious theologian from the Vatican — you learn why as the story unfolds — and the doctor of the now-walking/healed vet are trying to determine what in the world happened. For the secularist scientist, there simply cannot be such a thing as a miracle, so she has to run bunches of neurological and psychological tests to figure how the inexplicable happened. (Maybe he never was really a paraplegic? Maybe he’s a nut job, or a fraud?) When the reality TV show people come in with tinsel town promises (what a way to help others, they say!) all hell breaks loose.

This is a fun and fascinating story, by a writer who has been called “gripping and memorable” and “a rare original” and “raucously ambitions.” With blurbs from the likes of Dave Eggers and Joshua Ferris and Elizabeth Gilbert and Richard Russo, you’ll know if this is a book your smart book loving friends will appreciate.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis Patti Callahan (Thomas Nelson) $25.99  This new novel should be flying off our shelves. We are sure you know somebody that would be just delighted to get it as a gift. I do not have to say much, only that there are pages and pages of good reviews of Patti Callahan’s writing and storytelling. (She sometimes writes as Patti Callahan Henry.) She has been a finalist in significant literary awards, has been an IndiePick (favs of indie bookstores) and is especially known in the South. (She resides in Alabama and South Carolina.) That her books (such as The Bookshop at Waters Edge or Coming Up for Air or Driftwood Summer and many more) have been regular best sellers illustrates her popularity, that she writes in a way that resonates with many. The endorsements are from other really popular writers such as Lisa Wingate and Mary Alice Monroe and Charles Martin which assures you that this is readable, entertaining stuff.

And my, oh my, have we needed a novel like this! Most of us know a bit about Joy Davidman, the good friend of C.S. Lewis, an American left-wing atheist Jewess and serious poet who fell in love with the Oxford don, who married her in her hospitable room, knowing she was dying. She didn’t die quite so soon, and the rest is, as they say, history. History which comes alive in this nicely written, engaging fictionalization. (Thanks to Don King of Montreat College for doing the defining serious study of her in Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman (Eerdmans; $32.00) as well as the exquisite, important Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman  (Eerdmans; $28.00.)) Until now, it seems, we simply haven’t been put into the story from Joy’s perspective (even though we love the memoir by her son, Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis (HarperOne; $9.99) which was revealing.) This fresh, new novel is based, we are told, on a very close reading of Davidman’s life and love with Lewis, and is “a masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times.”

Becoming Mrs. Lewis is both a fascinating historical novel, so good for anyone who likes period pieces set circa 1950 Oxford, England. It would be a great gift for anyone who is a Lewis fan, of course. And, it is a beautifully-rendered glimpse into the life of a writer and seeker. Joy Davidman was a woman of ideas, of words, of literature. That she died so young is a great sadness.

Listen to Ariel Lawhon, author of I Was Anastasia,

Patti Callahan has written my favorite book of the year… It is both a meditation on marriage and a whopping grand adventure. Touching, tender, and triumphant, this is a love story for the ages.

Or, this great quote from author Kristy Cambron (of The Ringmaster’s Wife and the Lost Castle series) who exclaims:

This book is a work of art. Intelligent. Witty and charming. I’m left as spellbound as the first time I met Aslan… with these characters now just as dear.

Home Marilynne Robinson (Picador) $15.00 and Lila Marilynne Robinson (Picador) $16.00 These are the two sequels to the altogether beautiful, enchanting, well-told story of Rev. John Ames in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. As you may know, and should, Home tells the story of the colleague of John Ames, The Reverend Broughton, whose hell-raising son, Jack, has returned to Gilead, Ohio, after twenty some years. Considered “luminous and healing” it may be a modern re-telling of the prodigal son story. It is simply a must read.

Lila, the quirkiest (and, for some readers, the most miraculous and magnificent of the trilogy) tells the back story of the younger wife of John Ames, who appears a bit in Gilead and Home. One wonders about her, and, whew, what a story she has to tell. Lila was raised nearly homeless and alone, living on the fringes of society in “fear, awe, and wonder.”

The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Lila is a book whose grandeur is found in its humility. That’s what makes Gilead among the most memorable settings in American fiction.

The Chicago Tribune reviewer opined that,

Lila is the highest fictional magi: a character who seems so real it’s hard to remember that she exists only in the pages of this book

If you know anyone who read Gilead, but does not own these two, either one would make a marvelous gift. One can read either, in any order.

Watch With Me, And Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Nee Quinch Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $16.95  Well. If one hasn’t read Hannah Coulter ($14.95) and Jayber Crow ($15.95), you should know they are amongst our most beloved of all time favorite novels. We are not alone — nearly everyone who reads Berry is smitten with those two beautiful novels. Of course, he has many others, all, in one way or another, inter-locking, all set in Port Williams, Kentucky. He has several collections of short stores, too, and they are marvelous for those who love the genre. If if you are not a big fan of short-story, if you are taken with the Port Williams membership, then you want to know more of Berry’s imagination and more of his characters.

This is a great looking paperback, with an old-fashioned wood cut or silk screen on the cover. It is, many say, the most comic work Mr. Berry has done. These stories, like his others, “shine,” (in the words of the Christian Science Monitor) “with warmth and meaning.”  As Booklist noted about these seven tales, “Their diction is as as chaste as a Bible’s story’s; they express a biblical reverence for life and community, yet they are funny, too, and so beautiful.”

Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II Wendell Berry (Library of America) $40.00  Perhaps you have seen the handsome, well-bound, somewhat smaller size (if thick) hardbacks produced by the Library of America. They come on very nice paper, with ribbon markers, and make available some of the most enduring classics in American literature. It was a great joy and important literary event when it was announced that there would be two volumes bringing together the complete stories of Mr. Berry, offered in chronological order. (That is, in the fictional Port Williams world, not in the order of their publication date.) This is the first volume; the release date of the second has not been yet been announced. This nice volume one that came out early in 2018 includes Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, A World Lost, A Place on Earth and twenty-three short stories, in narrative order. There is a good bibliography and a splendid map.

This could be just about the best gift you could reasonably give to a serious fan of the fiction of Mr. Berry. I wish I knew when the second volume is going to be released but if you get them this one, that one will be a no-brainer of a gift next year this time.

By the way, for true Wendell Berry fans, we are thrilled to be taking PRE-ORDERS for the other two- volume Library of America editions which are coming out April 16th, 2019.These are Wendell Berry: Essays 1969 -1990 (Library of America; $37.50) and Wendell Berry: Essays 1993 – 2017 (Library of America; $37.50.)

There will also be a fabulous boxed set of the two entitled What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017 which will sell for $75.00. This itself would make a wonderful gift this Christmas, promising your Wendell Berry admirer to get this fabulous edition when it releases in the Spring. 20% off of that price, of course.

 

 

POEMS

Roots to the Earth Wendell Berry, wood engravings by Wesley Bates (Counterpoint) $26.00  We suggest this for that hard-to-buy-for person who may be a fan of Wendell’s. It is not as well known, but is a very handsome, larger sized, nicely illustrated poem, handset in a great old font. This is a much-expanded edition of a chapbook Berry and Bates did in portfolio form by West Meadow Press. This 2014 edtion was reprinted with additional poems and a prize-winning, never before published in book form short story, “The Branch Way of Doing” that also has engravings by Mr. Bates.

In an earlier edition, Bates wrote:

As our society moves toward urbanization, the majority of the population views agriculture from an increasingly detached position. In his poetry [Berry] reveals tenderness and love as well as anger and uncertainty. The wood engravings in this collection are intended to be companion pieces to. . . the way he expresses what it is to be a farmer.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver Mary Oliver (Penguin Press) $30.00 I suppose it may be said that there is no more popular poet working in America today than the beloved Ms Oliver. We have sold her books Swan, Dog Songs, A Thousands Mornings, Blue Horses and, most recently, her 2017 volume Felicity and others over the years. We celebrated this large, handsome collection when it came out, reviewing it in BookNotes the best I could. It offers poems from throughout her long career and is simply wondrous. (Other than this and Felicity, Oliver’s most recent published volume, by the way, is a fabulously interesting, rich collection of essays about life and times, mostly what we might call nature writing, although, like many of our best natural historians and observers of nature and our ecological crisis, she is a literary figure, and writes a bit about that as well. It is called Upstream: Selected Essays (Penguin Press; $26.00) and would be a much-appreciated gift, I’m sure, for any who like her words.

Eye of the Beholder: Poems Luci Shaw (Paraclete Press) $18.00 Speaking of beloved poets, Luci Shaw is among our favorites and many, many agree. She may be one of the most known and preeminent Christian poets these days; she was friends with Madeline L’Engle, and her faith and spirit seems similar. She has been an important figure in Christian publishing (with several non-fiction books, most recently, with IVP.) In this brand new collection, we get a glimpse of the themes explored from the book title — we are asking to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. As one reviewer put it, “Shaw crafts poems in the way she sees God’s creation is crafted — seamlessly and with enviable freshness.” Another serious literary critic says they “catch what Hopkins once called the ‘inscape’ of things…”

The famous founder of Image Journal (now being edited by James K.A. Smith), Gregory Wolfe, says,

A collection that not only distills a lifetime of spiritual reflection and poetic craft but also launches with the author’s characteristic boldness into new, uncharted, liminal spaces.

I suppose you know somebody who would revel at just such an invitation. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t overly fancy, obscure or arcane works. This is truly lovely stuff, highly recommended for the serious connoisseur or those that just enjoy inspiring lines. There is even a really good introductory essay called “Prophets and Poets.”  Enjoy!

Holy Luck Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans) $15.00 With Eugene’s recent death there is (thank goodness) a renewed interest in his many books. I think in the new year I might do an annotated reading guide to all of his work; we know it and love it. Decades ago he and I talked about him coming here, which he wanted to do, but time just didn’t work out. He used to write poems as somewhat of an avocation and he did them for Christmas blessings, too, the way some people write year’s end summaries of their busy lives. He was going to read some of his little-known poems for us.

Anyway, it was a joy to know this little collection was released a few years ago and I know he was fond of it.

I forget what we said at BookNotes when we first reviewed it, but here is how the publisher puts it:

Throughout his many years of pastoral ministry, almost everything Eugene Peterson has done — preaching, teaching, praying, counseling, writing — has involved words. To keep himself attuned to the power of words and to help himself use language with precision and imagination, Peterson both reads and writes poetry.
Holy Luck presents, in one luminous volume, seventy poems by Peterson, most of them not previously published. Speaking to various aspects of Kingdom of God-living, these poems are arranged in three sets:
Holy Luck — poems arising out of the Beatitudes
The Rustling Grass — poems opening up invisible Kingdom realities through particular created things
Smooth Stones — occasional poems about discovering significance in every detail encountered while following Jesus

Echoing the language of Peterson’s popular Bible translation, The Message, the poems in Holy Luck are well suited for devotional purposes. An ideal gift item, this volume is one that readers will look to again and again.

CHILDREN”S BOOKS

The Friend Who Forgives: A True Story About How Peter Failed and Jesus Forgave Dan Dewitt, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $14.00 We adore this good series (“Tales That Tell the Truth”) such as The Garden, The Curtain, and the Cross or our favorite, God’s Very Good Idea. We have customers who just adore The Christmas Promise, another collaboration with this creative writer and illustrator. These books are theologically clear, solid as can be, but playful and witty. We are very happy with how this story is both obviously relevant (friends forgiving) but finally not moralistic, but about deep gospel. These books are Christ-focused, gospel-centered, delightfully sharing really good news.

Outside My Window Linda Ashman, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (Eerdmans) $17.00 This lovely book works on a few levels — it has a poetic cadence that we really appreciate, as will any real wordsmith or lover of words. As importantly, the story itself invites kids to pay attention to what they see. Further, because each page spread shows a different child looking out her or his window in some different part of the world, it becomes clear that everybody sees stuff, even if really different things. Or maybe not so different?  While the lives of each of the children seem so different, there is something they all share. There’s a nice simple page in the back showing the cities and countries where each of the page spreads are set. Nice.

Everything Tells Us About God Katherine Bolger Hyde (Ancient Faith Publishing) $19.95  This is one of several really beautiful books we carry that are published by this great Orthodox publishing venture. A few of their books are very distinctly for Orthodox children (or those that want to read about the lives of those involved in the Orthodox way.) But a few are more general, and this one — imbued with a sacramental sensibility perhaps informed by the likes of Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann and his For the Life of the World — it is the sort of book that nearly anyone could fall in love with. The book says on the back that “the world is like a giant puzzle God made to tell us about himself. Every piece whispers one of His secrets — all we need to do is listen.”

And so, with this adventure awaiting, the children pay attention and listen to how the very creation itself points us to important aspects of God’s being or character. For instance, the wind reminds us of the Holy Spirit (“moving over the Earth like an enormous dove beating its wings. The Spirit is everywhere, filling all things. He is God’s breath — and our breath of life.”

Well, rocks tells us Christ is strong as a boulder. The ocean  reminds us that God is great and powerful (“and we can never control Him – just as sailors on the sea obey the sea’s laws so they can travel safely from one shore to the next.”) Stories we read remind us of the eternal story of which we are a part.  Water reminds us that Christ said he was the living what that can quench our deepest thirsts. Our food reminds us that God provides for us (and the bread we eat reminds us of Eucharist — the Body of Christ broken for Us. Jesus is the Bread that came down from heaven, the Bread that feeds us and gives us life.”

What do games and stadiums remind us of? How about teachers and pre-schools? Can animals teach us about God? How about seeds and stars? As you can tell, this is a wide-ranging, beautiful and deeply profound book for little ones. This book has so much wisdom and insight and I’m sure you’ll enjoy giving it to some child (or parents of young children) you know.

When God Gave Us Words Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Darcy Day Zoells (Flyaway Books) $16.00 If you know much about religious education and thoughtful, creative children’s books you may know this Reformed Rabbi, Sandy Sasso, and the many beloved books she has done. For years she is a mainstay of many mainline denominational children’s libraries with titles like God’s Paintbrush and In God’s Name. A year or so ago she teamed up with the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jil Levine to do two books re-telling some of the parables of Jesus (Who Counts? and The Marvelous Mustard Seed. We, of course, stock them all.) But this new one is spectacular.

It is spectacular and I hope many buy it from us. We’d love this book to be unwrapped by little children all over. However, I’ll admit, When God Gave us Words is a tad provocative, eccentric, event. Even the illustrations just have this odd little edge to them — it makes for a great reading experience and makes it well worth revisiting, time and again.

Here is the basic gist: God gives the gift of words to the first humans, and this Godly gift — we are made in God’s own image, after all — is a great thing, full of potential and power. There are so many words in our world and this tells us where they all came from. What joy, and what a true truth about our ability to speak, to tell stories. Alas, humans start to mis-use God’s gift and words are no longer crafted to bless and inspire but to curse and gossip, to hurt and harm. Oh my. You can see where this is going; the angels, in fact, beg God to take this gift away, to gather up the words and pull them back to heaven, since these words are so distorting God’s intentions. Words could have created friendship, solidarity, and community in the good creation. Hmm. What will God do?

Nope, God does not destroy the humans, or even take away their ability to speak and write and their colorful capacity for imagination and creativity. In fact, the story has a bit of a happy ending as people come to their senses and realize that words are to be used for good. Or, we might say, the angels came to appreciate the deep power of good stories and themselves wanted to see what humans would come up with next.

This is a great and playful story, like good Jewish midrash often is. It raises questions about free will, about divine grace, and, of course, about the proper use of words and the power of stories. It is not gospel centered, even if it follows the arc of creation and fall and some sort of hoped for restoration. But, despite it not being a fully Christian story, it is, nonetheless, a good one, a fascinating and provocative one. Ms Sasso has used words well to invite us to good conversations with our children — about origins, about God, about responsibility, and about words and writing and speaking and stories. What a book!

The Gift That I Can Give Kathie Lee Gifford, illustrated by Julia Seal (Tommy Nelson) $17.99  Okay, we’ll say this right from the start. Gifford is a remarkable person, very involved in philanthropy and social change work, and has written for adults and children (and recorded albums and plays and was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.) She knows how to get stuff done. The illustrator, Julia Seal, is herself an excellent designer (and loves glitter, as the cover of this sparkly book attests!)

This book is for very young children but it is trying to approach the questions about gifts and talents, about callings and vocations. Or at least being used by God to show love and goodness to others.  It says on the back, “Your child has a special gift to share with others. What could it be?”

Gifford believes that from the time children are very small, God gives them a gift that is meant to be shared with others. This sweet, rhyming story invites your child to discover that gift is God’s love. As it says on the back, “You don’t have to be a grown-up to make the world a better place. The smallest act of kindness shared from the heart is a truly beautiful gift.”

The Gift That I Can Give really is a great book to read with little ones, and it covers all sorts of ways to help make the world brighter. Since there is a little girl on the cover and the butterflies are all pastel and sparkly, I suspect it will be most loved by little girls. In fact, it shows the little girl doing all kinds of things, including throwing a football!  From playing the drums in the marching band to raising money for hungry kids to giving a hug to her grandparents, this child has much to offer. What a sweet, colorful, simple book. Three cheers.

Child of Wonder Marty Haugen, illustrated by Stephen Nesser (GIA) $16.95  GIA is mostly a music company and Marty Haugen — a contemporary Lutheran hymn-writer who is known for many recordings, folk-mass songs, and acoustic ballads of faith and seeking and justice — has worked with them for years. In this, his baptismal song, “Child of Wonder” is given a new feel. The lyrics are so beautifully, richly, illustrated by Nesser, highly respected Minnesota water colorist, and in so doing, the song becomes an inter-faith celebration of rituals for the sacredness of human life and delight in the lives of children.

The song is, at its first intention, a song to celebrate God’s love for children, to be sung at a baptism. But with these beautiful illustrations of folks from other world religions and their babies, it frames the baptism liturgy by this broader more general vision of children everywhere who are beloved.  Child of Wonder is an interfaith and multi-cultural book to cherish and share. Included, by the way, is a link to a free mp3 download of the song. Child of Wonder is not all that needs saying about Christian baptism. (There are several other really good books for that; call us when you need suggestions.) But it is a delightful, warm book and would make a lovely gift for a family that appreciates this sort of cross-cultural celebration.

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible Elizabeth F. Caldwell and Carol Wehrheim, editors (WJK) $25.00  When this came out earlier this year, many thoughtful educators (especially those that know the Christian ed theories of Caldwell and Wehrheim) celebrated, saying that this was finally the children’s Bible story book that they were awaiting. Ideal for kids who are 4 to 8 or 9, maybe, it helps nurture faith not by merely telling the Bible story but by telling it in such a way that it invites wonder. And invites kids to say “I wonder…” Rather than just preaching, it evokes in the reader a desire to take the story seriously, to enter in, if you will. The word choice, the cadence, the blend of illustration and photographs the questions asked all conspire to make this a particularly useful (and entertaining) tool in a child’s faith formation.

We continue to suggest that Sally Lloyd-Jones The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Zondervan; $18.99) is our favorite for young children. Her devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing (Zondervan; $17.99) also illustrated with the contemporary artist Jago, is also fabulous.

But this new Growing in God’s Love, as we said at BookNotes when we gladly announced it earlier in the year, is one-of-a-kind, with a respected team of mainline denominational educators and thoughtful Christian educators and an array of different kinds of artists and illustrators collaborating to give us one of the most colorful, interesting, gentle, evocative, and faithful kids Bibles in years. Highly recommended.

FOR OLDER ELEMENTARY KIDS

Love Does for Kids Bob Goff & Lindsey Goff Viduchich, illustrated by Michael Lauritano (Tommy Nelson) $16.99  We have bunches of these at the ready to send out, and we hope you email us right away —  or call! — so we can be sure to get some of these out the door, ASAP. I’m sure you know how much we love Love Does (and the great, great sequel, Everybody Always.) We have promoted it everywhere we’ve gone and written about them both at BookNotes. Goff is a hero of ours, adventurous, funny, whimsical, upbeat, and joyfully serious about making the world a better place. He tells amazingly entertaining stories of loving others — people in his workplace, folks in the neighborhood, people he bumps into, and (yes) some pretty amazing stories of resisting sexual trafficking and starting an orphanage in a war zone, and other such dramatic deeds.  I hope you know his books and his work.

This new version, Loves for Kids is ideal for older elementary kids who could read it themselves (like a “chapter book”), very nicely retold by Bob’s own grown daughter who is a second grade teacher. Here they takes some of Bob’s best stories, his daughter to bring a kids spin to them, making this the perfect book for kids that want to be inspired to life in big ways for the Kingdom of God. The pictures are inviting and I think will help kids imagine themselves living with the kind of whimsy and faith in Jesus that Bob does. What fun. It’s a hoot for anyone, of any age, really, but I think it this version is best for ages 8 – 12.

The NIV Action Study Bible illustrations by Sergio Cariello (David C. Cook) $32.99 By all counts, Sergio Cariello (who has worked for Marvell and DC Comics) is one of the best classic cartoonists doing action/adventure type comics today. His Action Bible has introduced millions of kids to the stories in the Bible with the dramatic comic-book-style illustrations. This Bible features the complete text of the NIV with lots of neat features, sections such as “What About This?” and “Unlock It!” and “Activate” and “Ancient Archives” and more. There’s good guessing games (“person, place or thing?”) and a distinct icon that appears whenever a story is included in the Action Bible illustrations. We think this could really help encourage a stronger connection to God and certainly a lively interest in Scripture.

If you know a kid that follows Spider-Man or Iron Man or Wonder Woman and the like, they may know Cariello. This kind of Bible could make a very good gift.

FOR TEENS

The Day the Angels Fell Shawn Smucker (Revell) $14.99 (paperback) $17.99 (hardback) We’ve been quite taken with this received fantasy novel about a something like a time-travel portal (set in New Orleans.) There is a whole, whole lot going on here and it is deeply spiritual without being preachy or push; it is just what a good, thoughtful yarn should be. Even those who don’t carry for magical realism or supernatural thrillers or any of that mind-boggling stuff will appreciate this. Here’s the thing — we almost listed this above under adult fiction, as it is that good. Serious teen readers could certainly enjoy it, too, so we’ve placed it here. It’s thoughtful and fun and adventuresome and — we have to tell ya: part one. Might we recommend getting part two, the sequel, along with this one? It’s a cool lookin’ pair, for sure.

The Edge of Over There Shawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99 (hardback only; the paperback will release in early April, 2019.) This is the powerful sequel to The Day the Angles Fell, the award winning tale of kids doing this time-travel sort of thing, not exactly time travel, but moving into another dimension — is “over there” heaven? What is this place called “the edge of over there”? Can they get the Tree of Life to help bringing healing to the city that is nearly in the grip of chaos? The Edge of Over There picks up almost where The Day the Angels Fell left off, only several  years later. The boy in the plot is 16 years old, now. What a story.

 

Shawn Smucker enchants with a deftly woven tale of mystery and magic that will leave you not only spellbound but wanting more.

 

What the Night Sings: A Novel Vesper Stamper (Knopf) $19.99 I realize that a story of a teen holocaust survivor is a heavy topic to give as a sweet Christmas gift for some tender kids, but for those who are a bit mature, thinking deeply about the horrors of the world, and maybe have a bit of punky attitude, this wonderfully crafted, powerful story about a German gal named Gerta making her way after getting out of Bergen-Belson is absolutely remarkable. Vesper herself grew up in a very creative family (born in Nuremberg, raised in New York) and, as she tells it, was raised amongst “an eclectic mix of engineers, musicians, and artists who didn’t think Voltaire too tough for bedtime reading, Chopin Valses too loud for wake up calls, or precisions slide rules too fragile for play things.” She studied design at Parsons and got a MFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts  and has very impressive graphic novel stylings in this — it isn’t a graphic novel but there are lots of black and white drawings, illuminations, and graphics throughout this luminous, powerful story.

That a young adult book has this sort of endorsement by such a major literary figure — Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale — on the back should make us all take notice:

A tour de force. This powerful story of love, loss, and survival is not to be missed.

Or listen to this from Deborah Heiligman (known for Charles and Emma and Vincent and Theo) who said:

What the Night Sings is a book from the heart, of the heart, and to the heart. Vesper Stamper’s Gerta will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Her story is one of hope and redemption and life–a blessing to the world.

This title has been on the list for the National Book Award nominations and is acclaimed in all the best educational journals that review teen books. Just a week ago it was named a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2018! It is a book of considerable heft, literarily and visually and literally — whew. For what it’s worth, Ms Stamper (and her husband Ben) have been in circles that we have been in at conferences organized by Mako Fujimura in New York and at others doing good faith-based creative work for the common good. It is an honor to tell you about this and invite you to consider gifting it to somebody who may value such an intense, passionate story of hope.

Just Mercy: Adopted for Young Adults: A True Story of The Fight for Justice Bryan Stevenson (Delacorte Press) $18.99 We have told nearly everyone who cares about our love for this man, his good work, and his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption that has to be one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Stevenson, after graduating from Eastern College (now University) and earned a law degree from Harvard Law School, started a small non-profit legal aid ministry, serving the poorest of the poor in prison in the deep south. Most of those he served were incarcerated with terrible, terrible injustices — blatant and illegal racism in the courtroom, incompetent and unhelpful public defenders, wrongfully condemned prisoners on death row, stuff the poor and many people of color face in our messed up criminal justice system. Bryan pours his life out though his Equal Justice Initiative, using his skills and faith to fight for the forgotten; I have said often that I think someday he may get the Nobel Peace Prize — he is that important and that good. Read Just Mercy and tell me if you don’t agree!

Just recently they did a somewhat abridged and more accesible volume of Just Mercy designed for the YA market. It says “young adults” on the front, but I don’t think this means college students or 20 somethings, but younger teens. Bryan is a great role model, has argued before the Supreme Court and has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. He is known in the evangelical community as well, having spoken at many Christian colleges, at the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh and the national Q gatherings, and as churches such as Redeemer in NYC.

One of Bryan’s big passions (and the topic of one of the most watched TED talks) is about young people who are incarcerated. He has represented many young people and it is to them this book is dedicated.

I think this youth version of Just Mercy would make a great gift or follow-up for any young person who has read The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, the YA novel about a black youth killed unjustly by a police officer. Or if they saw the movie that recently opened to much acclaim.  Get them this real-world, hope-filled, inspiring story of making a difference for anyone you know is fired up or distressed by that story (or looking forward to Thomas’s next one, On the Come Up, releasing February 5th. You can pre-order that from us, too, of course.) Just Mercy: Adapted for Young Adults should be in church and school youth libraries everywhere!

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