Hearts & Minds Bookstore to host John Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump” and It’s Déjà vu All Over Again

For this week’s BookNotes I thought I would share this op-ed piece I had published recently in our local Sunday paper, The York Daily Record. It can be found on their online site as well. We’re grateful they published it.

For what it’s worth, I want to say this at the outset: I am aware that this is a bit controversial and I am sorry if I step on anyone’s toes expressing my concern that there seems to be little Biblical basis for many of the policies of the so-called Christian right. As I say in the column, I had my fair amount of conversations with representatives of the Moral Majority and other such groups decades ago and I was consistently disappointed by the lack of solid Bible stuff to justify their policy proposals, let alone their general view of law, order, the task of the State, the meaning of justice, and so forth. There are outstanding exceptions, of course.  And — again, of course! — this concern about the theological and civic merits of the religious right does not therefore necessarily imply an endorsement of other camps or views (such as the so-called Christian left.) I’ve written a number of BookNotes columns about books that might help us pursuing a coherent view of public life that is not primarily beholden to the left or the right which I wish more fellow Christians (and others) would read. For instance, see HERE and HERE or HERE.

Or THIS quick summary of great titles I quickly highlighted in a recent video about books on this topic.

(To the trolls that have been pestering us lately, claiming I’m too sly and unwilling to say what I truly think, I ask: do you know anyone else who isn’t a full time activist or scholar who has written this much about faith and politics? I’m no expert but want to help us all be better followers of Jesus and thereby better citizens and think I’ve been pretty transparent with these several columns.)

We are glad Dr. Fea is coming to the shop on Friday night (August 10th at 7:00 pm) and we hope many will come to hear him talk about his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Trump and chat together over refreshments as we ponder the nature of the intersection of faith and public life these days. Since he is such a passionate historian, I’m sure the conversation will be informative and interesting.

If you cant be here but you’d like his autograph on a book, we can get one signed for you and send it out on Monday. Just tell us if you want Dr. Fea to make it out “to” anyone particular. Autographed books make nice gifts, eh? Send us an order right away and note any instructions either at our website order form page (see below) or via email.

Hearts & Minds to host Dr. John Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”  — And It’s Déjà vu All Over Again

In the 1980s, Hearts & Minds, our independent bookstore in Dallastown, hosted several events to ask if Biblical Christians should support what was then a fairly new political movement known as the religious right. We had feisty conversations, sometimes with authors or other faith leaders, about a Biblical worldview and whether such a perspective should or shouldn’t endorse the conservative wing of the Republican party. We are doing something like that again at 7:00 PM on August 10, 2018, this time hosting historian Dr. John Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Yogi Berra’s witty line about experiencing  “déjà vu all over again” seems to describe recent debates about the new religious right and their support for a President who seems to violate most of the Biblical commandments and nearly all of the teachings of Jesus.  We’ve been here before, but this time, it is weirder still.

To many church goers and non-Christians it seems incongruous.

In the 1980s Rev. Jerry Falwell expertly inspired politically disinterested fundamentalists to become a major civic force, aligning themselves with the the Republican Party. I was glad, in principle, to see people of faith living out their values in the public square, making a case for their views in the marketplace of ideas, and allowing their own deepest convictions to inform their civic engagement.

Religiously-motivated involvement in politics is good democracy and good religion.

From some of our nation’s earliest founders to many of the modern civil rights leaders, the Christian faith has motivated and informed ordinary citizens and public leaders to care about the common good, creating a political culture that took Christ-like love for neighbor into the public sphere. “Seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you” the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote centuries ago to a beleaguered group of exiled Jews living in Babylon. The righteous have always cared for their communities; thinking well about the task of the state and how social institutions can better the world has always been a vital theological task.

It was wrong (and un-American) when some insisted that because Falwell and his movement were religious they should be marginalized, that their fundamentalist views were unwelcome in a democracy.  No:  in America, all views are viable if they motivate people to be good citizens and all are welcome to make their case in the pluralistic public square.

Therefore, in theory, I cheered when Dr. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others preached to their formerly apathetic followers and called them to be more politically engaged.

But, oh, how wrong the Reverend got it.

Supporting horrible dictators, pleading for more bombs, cutting off services to the poor, mocking those who were humble, supporting anti-American crooks like Ollie North, affirming racists in South Africa, fighting environmental protections — it was hard to find a wise position or healthy policy or a just principle behind many of his controversial Moral Majority efforts. I argued with Falwell personally about how unbiblical his views were and begged him to repent of his disregard for the vast, well thought-out Christian tradition of public theology, but to no avail. I chided him about his dishonesty when he criticized more balanced Christian thinkers saying on national TV that they were not truly Christian (as if true Christians supported war and injustice and racism.) His right-wing ground troops fighting against services to the poor, against good stewardship of the environment, against services for special needs children, against peacemaking-oriented diplomacy around the world, were all so new to politics; quickly the power-mongering went to their heads and many grew increasingly uncivil.

Sadly, most simply did not know the long-standing, nuanced tradition of both Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics. They ignored the healthy political theology written in centuries  past and the robust renaissance of evangelical political thinking that attempted to be overtly Christ-like and not beholden to any party. I recall weeping in those hard Reagan years as some religious leaders worked to cut aid to the world’s starving, shamed those on food stamps, and argued for more and more money to right-wing militants in places like Nicaragua and Guatemala and lauded the US-backed assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. It nearly seemed as if many of those aligned with the religious right hadn’t read those big, black Bibles they waved as they advocated for policies that the Bible itself opposed.

As much as the 1980s Christian right influenced public policies in ways that seemed to me to be inconsistent with Biblical shalom, it seems that most of the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who supported Falwell were at least motivated by good concerns: family values, as they were called in those days, a concern for the unborn, resistance to secularization, and a coarsening of public discourse.

And now we have some very unusual fundamentalists supporting a vile, exceedingly secular President who consorts with Playboy Bunnies and prostitutes and is legendary for his irreligious attitudes, his worldview of greed and power and might. If the religious right of the 1980s seemed unbiblical and un-Christ-like in supporting the affable but hawkish Ronald Reagan, how in the world can they possibly use the Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus to support the tawdry and volatile President Trump? How the theologically and politically compromised religious right of the 1980s evolved in our generation to the incoherent movement it is today is one of the great questions of our time.

That question will be pondered for years to come as theologians, cultural critics, and historians reflect on this odd season of American life and this peculiar alignment of conservative religion and a prideful President who said he has never asked for forgiveness and who stands for some policies that are against the grain of Christian tradition.

Dr. John Fea of the history department at Messiah College is one such historian who is himself an evangelical and interested in this perplexing re-run of the religious right. He has written a well-researched book called Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, released by Eerdmans Publishing to much acclaim a few weeks ago. Fea has been on national talk shows and his book is being reviewed all over the country. He writes about the history of religion in American public life. His specialty is the colonial period and his earlier book, Was America Founded as a Christian Country?, has earned significant awards. In this new book he is trying to discern how it is that so many white conservative Protestants (sometimes called “evangelicals”) voted for the current President.

Fea shows that some of the concerns and fears which animate this new iteration of the religious right have, in fact, been baked into American religiosity since our earliest years. Nationalism and anti-immigration animus is not new. Only such an astute historian of religion could help us see some of the spirits of the age and help us realize their centuries-old roots.

Yet, there is something new happening with the “court prophets” as Fea calls the leaders of the 2.0 version of the religious right. Believe Me is a fair and fascinating study of what’s going on in these contentious times and helps those who are not part of the conservative Christian movement understand their fellow citizens. And, hopefully, it will help some who have been too supportive of the current leadership ask if their faith might call them to be less cozy with any political party. Dr. Fea is a good man, a jovial speaker, a fine scholar, and his book is an important contribution to one of the most important phenomena of our time. 

Author John Fea will be speaking at Hearts & Minds, 234 East Main Street in Dallastown, on August 10th at 7:00 pm. All are invited.


Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans) $24.99  This, of course, is the new release that Dr. Fea has been researching for the last year or so. We are thrilled to have recommended it early on and appreciate Fea’s concern that many of the religious leaders who support President Trump are theologically muddled and that too many citizens are driven by concerns (fear? nostalgia?) that are not healthy or faithful. Regardless of your view of the religious right or the current President, this is a fine work, offering an evangelical historian’s assessment of these peculiar days in which we live.



Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic) $20.00 This slim volume is worth its weight in gold, ideal not only for history majors or younger students but for any of us that need reminded of the importance and value of the study of history.  And my, oh my, we all need that reminder in this postmodern era that seems to glory only in the “right now.” That professor Fea brings a particularly Christian slant to his fine essay makes it that much more useful for many. What a great, great little book. Very highly recommended for one and all.



Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? An Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox) $30.00 This fabulous and important work was a finalist in the prestigious George Washington Book Prize and is considered by some to be the best (and most evenhanded, insightful) book on the question. It is one of Dr. Fea’s great accomplishments and is respected even by scholars who may have wished for a different emphasis here or there. It’s a live question, and an important matter, and is very highly recommended.



Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press) $40.00 This was co-edited by John with two other exceptional evangelical historians on the notion of the call to be a Christian scholar and professor and the nature of Christian historiography. In a way, Jay Green (of Covenant College) and Eric Miller (of Geneva College) and Fea (of Messiah College) and the others who contributed to this volume represent a newer generation of historians who were informed decisively by the groundbreaking work and reputation of the likes of Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.


The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press) $24.99  In this first full biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, John Fea tells the story of how one young man sought to pursue the life of an eighteenth-century Presbyterian gentleman while continuing to yearn for the everyday passions that defined what it meant for him to be human. What a fascinating study in early American experiences. I rhink rhia

Listen to what the eminent historian Mark Noll says of it:

“Many historians of Revolutionary America have plundered the diaries of Philip Vickers Fithian, but until now no one has satisfactorily told the life story of this great diarist. John Fea’s insightful book does just that—and yet more. By showing how Fithian pursued the values of a cosmopolitan Enlightenment, in concert with the values of Presbyterian Christianity and American patriotism, his study reveals much about an enduring American tradition.”

I think this review of the robust journal Books & Culture captures Fea’s lively and pleasant style and the importance of the issues he raises in his work:

“In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea . . . shows how seismic philosophical upheavals profoundly shaped the life of an ordinary man far from the epicenter. Perhaps Fea’s signal contribution is his nuanced reading of the relationship between the Enlightenment and Christianity.”



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Five books promoted in “Byron’s Summer Reading Club” video for CCO students and friends

Okay, friends, this is a bit unusual for our weekly BookNotes newsletter. I’ve got a video about to be posted but wanted to write about the books I describe in the video.

I’m on the road again, heading to a discipleship house in New Jersey where I’ll get to speak about reading as a Christian practice with a group of college students. Beth and I just returned from a full week at the fabulous New Wilmington Missions Conference that has been held annually for well over 100 years; there were almost 700 people, including children and teens and speakers from all over the world. Before that we were serving friends who are on staff at the CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach), a wonderful inter-denominational campus ministry with which we are affiliated. One of their slogans is that every college student “needs the gospel, needs the church, and needs a vision for their lives.”

We think reading is a big part of that since we all need a coherent vision of a purposeful life lived missionally for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Understanding a bit about God’s redemptive plan for healing the cosmos, making all things new, surprising us with hope, as N.T. Wright puts it, helps us all clarify our own callings, discerning how our own story fits into God’s bigger story. CCO teaches students about Christ and his Kingdom, about the local church, and about living out faith in every area of life, even in their majors and future careers. Not a bad, eh?

Well, during their training time earlier this summer we cooked up this little plan to offer some titles on a video posted to social media. I don’t have the link here, yet, but for those that want to watch me in hyper mode, telling about five books for “summer reads” for college students you can check our Hearts & Minds facebook page or my own facebook or twitter feed soon.  We’ll put up a link to my 7-minute infomercial, highlighting these five books. We’ll be doing another one in a couple of weeks, too, so stay tuned.

Here are the five books I selected for the video for CCO students or other young adults (or others!) who want to join us in this little reading plan for the next month.

These are all 20% off and you can enter your credit card digits at our website order form page; the link to it is shown below.  Click on the ORDER link below which will take you to the secure order form at our Hearts & Minds website. Just type in the book you want, your digits and address. We’ll confirm everything, send it right out via US mail, and enclose your receipt in the package.

Here ya go, a little description of the titles I describe in the Byron’s Book Club video.

Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People Bob Goff (Thomas Nelson Publishing) regularly $16.99;      BOOK CLUB PRICE $13.59

As I say on the little video, this is nearly a money-back deal — it is guaranteed to bring delight and inspiration as Bob is one of the most fascinating, whimsical, fun and funny and beautify people we know. You will love his moving stores of capers where he learns to love everybody, no matter what. A great read for anyone, even those who don’t read heavy theology or long, literary novels. This is a blast, great to give out to young or old.  As I say on the video promotion it is certainly one of our favorite books of the year.


Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems J.D. Greear (Zondervan) regularly $16.99;  BOOK CLUB PRICE $13.59

I know it isn’t the most important thing, but there is a die cut hole in the middle of this, and a bit of yellow showing through that just is so captivating. And somehow makes the point: our God is too small.  And that’s not good. Greear is a youngish pastor of a growing contemporary church and his earlier books were insightful about church planting, missional living, and moving into service to advance God’s work in the world.  This really is a good, basic Christian living book, grounded in this assumption that the heart of our faith is knowing God and the character and power of God is essential to grasp. God is worthy and he wants to take us “from boring to bold” in our faith.  Good stuff.

To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future Dan Allender (Waterbrook) regularly $15.99; BOOK CLUB PRICE $12.79

If there is any one book this last year or two that has touched CCO staff and students it is this beautiful, intense guide to naming one’s own story (including hard stuff in one’s past) and learning how to move forward without shame into God’s vision. It is so true that our lives are lived as a story and that God’s redemptive work is storied. CCO staff and students heard Dan Allender at Jubilee 2018 and were blown away by his story of God’s healing path out of brokenness and hardship. This is a great book to make sense of your life and times and important for us all.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in an Age of Distraction Alan Noble (IVP) regular price $16.00; BOOK CLUB PRICE $12.80

I hope you saw my description of this on the video as it really is an important book, an incisive critique of our secular age and how we can disrupt the distractions that erode our abilities to focus on things that matter most. Only then can we live well and serve God meaningfully in the real world of fast-paced pressures. What should we think of philosophers like Charles Taylor (or James K.A. Smith) who teach us about “our secular age”? How can daily rituals and liturgies and concentrated efforts to be attentive make a different in how we even think about truth? How can we share our faith and convictions when few people even believe much matters any more? This book is thoughtful, brilliant at times, and deserves a careful study for those who want to understand the times and be formed in a spirituality that allows us to embody the gospel in our times. I reviewed this at length a few weeks ago at BookNotes if you want a more careful survey. Why not disrupt your own tendencies and make a commitment to read this book this summer?

Homeland Insecurity: A Hip Hope Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Context Daniel White Hodge (IVP Academic) regularly $27.00; BOOK CLUB PRICE $21.60

Not even a short list of recommended titles this summer would be complete without something on race and racism, and, since we sent out my little promo video mostly to young adults, it really should have something about hip hop culture. What interesting times we live in with masterful rap artists like Kendrick Lamar (just for instance) and the huge popularity of Jay Z and Beyonce, say. Daniel White Hodge is a powerful cultural critic —  I’d say a prophet — who has studied this aspect of pop culture for years. In the video I mention one of his other books, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology (IVP; $22.00) that is an excellent introduction to thinking Christianly about hip hop culture. Anyway, 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.


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PRE-ORDER “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them” by Jonathan Merritt ON SALE (and a FREE SHIPPING OFFER)

If you pay attention to the many sorts of Christian voices on social media you may know journalist and pundit Jonathan Merritt.  He has won awards for writing for The Atlantic and has been one of our most prolific religion and culture writers. He shows up on serious TV shows on networks as diverse as CNN, Fox News, and NPR and has been published by The New York Times and The Washington Post.  His recent podcast (co-hosted with Kristen Powers) is called The Faith Angle and has a huge, passionate following. Regardless of your own theological tradition or political bias, he is an author you should know. His new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them (Convergent) will release mid-August. It regularly sells for $15.99 but we have it at a BookNotes special sale price of $12.79. If you PRE-ORDER it now we will send it to you FREE SHIPPING. We will continue to sell this great new book at our 20% off deal, but will pay the shipping costs for you only if you order it before the release date on August 14, 2018.

We are eager to let our diverse Hearts & Minds tribe – what else to call us?  “Customers” is too clinical; “Fan base” sounds cool but is a bit much; “demographic” (please no!) – about some of our favorite writers and trust that whether you’ll fully agree with them, you’ll appreciate hearing important voices and learning about significant authors.

Well, if I have a hard time finding words to describe our bookish community nowadays, sensing that words like customers or fans or readers mean different things to different people and may or may not fully capture all we’re trying to do among those who read our reviews and support our work, then Jonathan Merritt has an even bigger quandary on his hands.

As you can tell from the title and important sub-title of his soon-to-be-released Learning to Speak God from Scratch:Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them is exactly about how the meanings of ancient religious expressions and previously understood sacred terms are up for grabs in much of post-modern America. Heck, forget the hip and diverse postmodern enclaves of Brooklyn, RINO in Denver, Portlandia, or keeping it weird Austin, even in fairly white-bread, middle-American small towns the older religious consensus is long gone. We don’t have to rehearse here the contours of our post-Christian age (and will only give a quick shout-out about our BookNotes review a few weeks ago of the very thoughtful cultural study Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.)

In this great new Speaking God book, Mr. Merritt tells a bit of his own story. His father has long been a major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and Jonathan grew up devout, deep in the Bible belt. He went to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and although he has moved significantly to the more mainline Protestant tradition/ethos and in some ways to the political left, he still maintains great respect for his conservative theological roots and the broadly evangelical vision of a robust personal faith rooted in the Biblical story about the saving work of Jesus Christ. In the last few years his voice has been increasingly recognized as a fresher, more culturally engaged evangelical one, offering a younger, perhaps more open-minded perspective within emerging, new evangelicalism. But then he moved from the south to the secularized and diverse New York City and now seems to be the very embodiment of the truth from the Judy Garland movie line, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.)

Jonathan isn’t the first to try to translate historic Christian ideas and ideas into fresh language that even the spiritually-alienated might appreciate. Older writers have done this recently as well – just think of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by the contemplative Kathleen Norris, or the popular “dictionaries” Wishful Thinking and Whistling in the Dark by clever Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner, or Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power by Marcus Borg. We still carry the under-utilized Talking the Walk: Letting Christian Language Live Again by our friend Marva Dawn. Even the elegant Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book called Speaking of Sin.

Jonathan Meritt’s guidebook is more groundbreaking, though, it seems to me, as he is both deeply evangelical in his background and is exceptionally aware of and a part of the younger post-Christian milieu that is shaped by a wild pluralism.That is, he has found from experience, in his Brooklyn neighborhood and in his working relationships with contemporary journalists, writers, and rising media stars, that we simply cannot assume people know what we mean when we use phrases from theology or church life. And he knows of scores of people who maybe have heard (or once believed) certain theological phrases or religious notions but have grown confused as those words are weaponized and used to exclude and marginalize. He really gets that and has earned the right to be heard on this re-thinking of the words we use to express faith’s dearest truths.

Just the other day I had a moving conversation with a campus ministry worker who had a young collegiate join her Bible study on the gospel of Luke; this lovely young student was shocked – shocked! – to find out that people wanted to hurt Jesus. Wait; what? she cried. When one fellow student said to her that they not only were angered by Jesus but, later in the story, actually killed him, my friend quipped: and just wait to you hear what happened next!

Despite the ubiquity of national civil religion, celebrities giving shout-outs to God during awards show, chatter about so-called faith leaders supporting the President, and popular Christmas and Easter celebrations (and TV specials) it is sobering to know that many don’t know a thing about the basic facts about the life of Jesus. What people pick up from the media is piecemeal and convoluted, as best. Forget talking about most Biblical stories or grace or sin or covenant or Reformed this or that, or Wesley or Ignatius, or the many in-house words we use to describe our church facilities or ministerial positions. (Do you really think people want to meet in the narthex to be introduced to  the vestry or session? Or, conversely, do you think folks get that when you talk about your worship band on a stage that they have a clue that this means something more or other than what is experienced at a standard rock show?) If they are confused about the lingo we use in our churches, imagine what happens when we start talking about more important, deeper, words of sacred meaning and substance?

So, it’s complicated. Urgently so. And Jonathan uses his great gift as a storyteller (who has his fingers to the pulse of the generation John Seel calls “the New Copernicans”) to explore the conundrums of contemporary communication and guide us towards helpful ways to breathe new life into your spiritual conversations. Or to perhaps equip you with deeper confidence to have conversations about things that matter most.

One reviewer of an advanced copy of Learning to Speak God from Scratch writes that:

For too long, people have been left out of conversations that hold life-or-death weight, especially about who God is, because of a cultural language barrier. If the message you love is worth it, this book is for you.

Is the message of the gospel important enough to you to wish to be able to talk to unchurched friends and co-workers in ways that they understand?

Another says:

Jonathan writes with uncommon eloquence, curiosity, and compassion about the ever-evolving role of religion and faith in our culture, with the hard-earned wisdom of one who’s been both scarred and healed.

That puts it well, which is what makes this book so good – not only the illustrations and stories but Merritt’s own character, forged by this very stuff. (A wonderful earlier book called A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars shows his early ruminations on this; more recently he wrote the lovely Jesus is Better Than You Imagined which, again, helps express good news to the unchurched skeptic who may still yet be curious about things of faith or those who reject the gospel because of the legalism and harshness of the Christian right.) His podcast colleague and friend Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and CNN political analyst, assures us that the new book is engaging and “will appeal equally to the devout and the spiritually alienated.”

I couldn’t agree more.

That promise from Powers is important and says something about Merritt’s heart, his proclivities, his talents: he really does want to see the gospel proclaimed in relevant and contextualized ways here in the post-Christian West, especially among some who have developed allergies to our God-talk. He does want us to be able to get around those biases and barriers that keep people from caring about the plausibility of a real and rigorous faith. He knows that words like sin or lost have become so negative that they can end conversations. But he really does want to revive our sacred language and historic words, not scuttle them or redefine them beyond recognizable meaning.

In a way, this book is the result of Jonathan’s on-going project of exploring the American reluctance to talk about faith, good stuff that he’s discovered about what people do and don’t know about conventional Christian faith and what people do and don’t respond to in conversations about religion. There’s data, too (that he commissioned with questions he helped design with Barna Group’s Roxanne Stone and David Kinnamen.) Merritt explains and evaluates findings that “reveals a quiet crisis effecting millions.” I want to suggest this isn’t only a fun and interesting and useful book, but that it is urgent, important, necessary.

Jonathan is a good thinker and great writer. He draws on lots of sources, sharing personal episodes from his own life and faith journey but also on other scholars and thought leaders, ancient and modern. For instance, the book opens with two epigrams that invite us to his vital project.

The always astute David Brooks puts it succinctly:

Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.

And from American Public Radio, the beloved Krista Tippett gives the perfect precis of the book:

A lot of the words we need the most have been watered down by overuse and cliché in politics and culture, and this includes words that are very meaningful for many Christians: love, peace, faith, and justice, to name a few. I don’t think we can expect these words to necessarily convey what we mean when we say them, so we must surround them with an ecosystem of vocabulary – and both words and practices – to carry the richness of our meanings when the words themselves need reviving.

The first six short chapters are really, really, good, as Jonathan explores the nature of this crisis of our sacred words. There’s a chapter that is very important called “Why Speaking God Matters” and another (that I wish I had written) called “Our Divine Linguaphile.” (Yep, let that sink in!) He offers a chapter called “How (Not) to Speak God and another few on the possibility of a revival of our speech and a way forward.  These first 60 some pages are fantastic, will be both entertaining and make you think. You don’t even have to agree with his assessment, of course, but I’m sure you will resonate with much of this.

The next 20 chapters are short reflections on key words, each coupled with a fabulously creative and pithy subtitle/by-line that is nearly alone worth the price of the book. For instance, in a chapter called “Pain” the sub-title is “Chronic Conditions and Other Metaphors” and in one called “God” the by-line is “Tattooed Jesus and a Full-Narrative Deity.” Who wouldn’t want to read a chapter called “Blessed – Hollow Hashtags and Marble Toilets.” You’ve got to read “Family – Changing Households from Munsters to Dunphys.” I really liked the one on “Brokenness” with the by-line “Reparative Therapy and Our Aversion to Responsibility.” His storytelling shines in “Confession – Internet Vulnerability and Grace the Doorman.”

In Merritt’s description of the theological word “fall” he describes “Scientific Quandaries and the Beauty of You.” In the chapter called “Lost” he writes of “Microaggressions and Our Common Condition.” From “Grace” to “Pride” to “Spirit” to “Creed” (subtitled “Heresy Hunters and Twitter Farewells”) and on through a lovely chapter on “Neighbor”( described as “Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis”) he does this marvelous, magical thing, talking about classic theological words, vulnerably sharing stories and anecdotes, and offering new ways to hint at solid truths and deep mysteries to those for whom these words do not have orthodox Christian meaning. He’s a theologian working from pop culture, political affairs, and the everyday “hopes and fears of all the years” that point us to the truths of Biblical faith. From “tiptoe terms” to “pronoun wars” to “necessary nos” he offers us wonderful, stimulating essays that are well worth reading and well worth sharing. Speaking God would make a great book club selection – I know there will be parts you simply will have to discuss with others.

There is a wonderful, wonderful and vitally important concluding chapter – more substantive than a conclusion, but with the emotional satisfaction of a beautiful afterword – called “In the Beginning Was the Conversation.” Jonathan follows that up with an appendix-like “How-To Guide for Seekers and Speakers.” This is just great stuff.

Here is a short video trailer about the book. Be sure to come back and order it from us!

Please consider PRE-ORDERING Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Retrieve Them right away.

We will write back personally and confirm your order.

We will send your order out via US Mail as soon as they arrive in mid-August.


And here’s our very special extra offer: not only are we offering this at our BookNotes 20% deal, for those who PRE-ORDER the book now (that is, before August 14, 2018) we will pay the shipping for you.  That’s right – that’s a phrase people still get: FREE SHIPPING!

Just follow the link below to our secure order form page. We can take your credit card digits but won’t process them until we send out the books mid-August. We’ll enclose your receipt in the package for your records unless you request otherwise. For instance, if you ask us to send the book to another person on your behalf we obviously wouldn’t put your receipt into their package but would email it to you for your files. We could tuck a note in saying it is from you, though. In any event, we’re happy to serve and look forward to hearing from you soon.


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Heron River: A Novel by Hugh Cook (and a baker’s dozen other excellent summer novels.) ON SALE 20% OFF

In the last BookNotes column I noted that Alan Noble, in his new Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, talks about how novels can be windows to deeper things, stories can engage our imaginations and create ways for us to think about the things that matter most. As I said, he is in line with what James K.A. Smith, drawing particularly on Charles Taylor and his massive philosophical study called The Secular Age, has said as well. Reading fiction is important for any number of reasons, not least is that it is one of the ways to help us think about and talk about important things with our friends and neighbors.

Of course one doesn’t need to read philosophical studies of the spirit of the age to know the power of novels. Cornelius Plantinga wrote a marvelous book a few years ago explaining in lovely detail why pastors and preachers should read widely. That was called Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans; $14.00)and for a while I went around calling him my patron saint. It’s for preachers, I suppose, but we recommend it to one and all. More recently our friend from Englewood Review of Books wrote Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP; $16.00) which explored the missional vision of reading widely, both fiction and nonfiction. Chris is a lover of words, tells about the value of poetry, and insists on the value and importance of reading novels, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Maybe you have heard that there are three books coming out this fall about the joys of reading and offering book lists of all sorts. I was very moved by the serious and helpful Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life by the very smart and widely read Sarah Clarkson which is coming in early September from Tyndale ($15.99; you can pre-order it from us at our BookNotes 20% off, of course.) Further, we have an early version and can heartily recommend I’d Rather Be Reading:The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by one Anne Bogel, a.k.a. the Modern Mrs. Darcy book blogger which you can also pre-order from us. It, too, is coming out early September 2018, published by Baker. It will sell for $14.95 and is a compact-sized hardback.

Most significantly, we have been encouraged by the many pre-orders of the forthcoming book by Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos; $19.99.) I hope you saw our BookNotes description of it a while back.

We are very happy to be hosting Karen here at the shop on Friday night, September 14, 2018. Please help us spread the word – if you love good literature, she will be sharing how both classics and contemporary novels can help us by shaping virtue. It’s going to be a good time and we are looking forward to the release of her book in early September and our book party here the 14th.


And so, yes, reading novels is an enjoyable sort of entertainment, a valuable way to spend some time that brings pleasure and insight; such art and entertainment can develop our empathy and give us new courage and deepen even hope, faith and love. Why not take these remaining summer months to read a few extra novels and why not buy one for a friend who needs a lift? It really could be a transforming, appreciated gift. We’ll even send it for you with a note tucked in if you’d like…


All of these are 20% off their regular prices. You can order them by using our secure order form page at the link below; just tell us what you want. We understand that some have scruples about books with course language or rough stuff. Not all are written from a viewpoint that is Christian. Not all of these are for everyone, naturally.

Still, these are all really good. Happy reading.

Heron River: A Novel Hugh Cook (Mosaic Press) $16.00 Hugh Cook is a novelist who has been known in the Dutch Reformed faith communities of Ontario for quite some time; I used to read him in a magazine called Vanguard decades ago and he has often read or lectured at the popular and widely esteemed Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. (That should nearly settle it; to be involved in that bi-annual event is a great marker for faith-informed writers. It is its own kind of recommendation.) Cook is a vivid writer and a great storyteller (and, I happen to know, a voracious reader of excellent literature, from Flannery O’Conner to Kent Haruf.) One of his previous novels earned a regional award in Canada and another has been adapted for the stage. He is Canadian writer that I wish was better known in the States.

Heron River is one of the most enthralling and captivating stories I’ve read all year and I want to highly recommend it. The back cover warns us that it is:

…a deeply moving exploration of human error and redemption, tragedy and triumph, set in the supposed safety of a small Ontario town. The novel poignantly confronts the necessary possibilities for human forgiveness and love amidst adversity.

I think that is a good summary of its emotional and religious themes, except maybe the part about triumph; there is satisfying resolution at the end, goodness, even, but I’d not call it triumphant. I did fight back tears and breathed deeply as I grinned at the beautiful ending but I’d be a little reluctant to use words like triumph or even redemption. It is deeply Christian and there is a scene of great redemption – I don’t want to spoil it – but it is overtly Christian and nuanced and realistic, so, indeed, there is this spiritual aspect that quietly comes to one of the main characters. (That it involved a boy in his Anglican church is itself oddly rare in many religious novels, it seems to me, and a wonderful part of the plot of Heron River.)

But let me be clear; much of this is ugly and hard and although it isn’t horror or true crime, there is a dark aspect to this, some criminal investigations and a few frightening scenes. I don’t read stories about savage crime and I don’t even really enjoy mysteries, so I suppose I was so struck by this because I’m not that familiar with what could easily turn too morbid. But Cook isn’t dreary or nihilistic, so even the awful stuff that happens – the near death of a child, a woman with increasingly troubling MS, a hard-to-handle character in a group home for the disabled, an aging Dutch father with dementia in a nursing home, a senseless murder and vile vengeance – wasn’t overwhelming for this sensitive reader. But it is a robust story of sin and anguish and shame and considerable hardships.

But it is also a beautiful book –a very beautiful book. The opening pages about a woman starting her day, cutting rhubarb from her moist garden as she prepares a pie for a church event, is just so gorgeously rendered it assured me this was going to be a very pleasurable, artful read. When the horrific hits, it is also appropriately described. Cook is a skilled craftsman of words and a mature writer and it shows.

Here’s a fun thing about Cook’s genius in telling this story: different characters have different ways of speaking and his writing style transfigures from elegant to blunt, from complex to long, goofy, run-on sentences that go on and on as some inarticulate folk tend to do. It didn’t take too long to realize this device and when those breathy, nearly stupidly long sentences from those characters began, I took a deep breath and went along for the ride. What fun.

There is an important aspect of the story that is set in a group home for the mentally challenged and a few kind and strong caregivers at the house. Part of the book is told through the experiences of Adam, a resident of the home and it is unlike anything I’ve ever read. The description of the house and the various sorts of handicapping conditions of the young adult residences rang very true. Again, it was weighty, moving, poignant, but also a very enjoyable experience, reading such a well-told story with so many deeply human angles.

Cook doesn’t overplay the role of the beautiful blue Herons that occasional appear in the river that plays such a role in the story. You’ve heard of the “wrong side of the tracks”? In a way, there are two communities in play here, on different sides of the river; one is suburban and seemingly safe and the other side houses folks in poorer homes, including a Native population. One of the First Nation characters is a major voice in the story as he teaches the somewhat brain-damaged Adam some Indian creation stories and pays him for his manual labor. Why was I afraid this would not be the case? Who are the forces for redemption in a story with such brokenness and whose characters have such foibles? How are healing and hope experienced when there are such fierce bonds among families (especially when some families are so broken?)

How does beauty figure in and what is the symbolic meaning of the majestic scene with the heron near the end? I get choked up even thinking about it, and I hope you do to.

To be candid, this is a book intentionally informed by Christian worldview and written by a man known, I suspect, as a Christian writer (although the independent publishing house is not.) Two churches figure into the story, as does a beautiful moment of reading a Psalm from an old Dutch Bible. However there is rough language, some sexual banter, lots of cussing from the characters who appear and some violence. Perhaps it will be a bit much for your taste. Interestingly, I know an evangelical pastor who featured it in his church as a book club title because he wanted to talk about it with his parishioners. Read Heron River by Hugh Cook and you might want to talk about it, too. We are thrilled to recommend it and hope you like it as much as I did.

There There: A Novel Tommy Orange (Knopf) $25.95 This is a complex novel comprised of many interlocking characters who are all urban Native peoples (and it, too, for the record, has characters who use the F word a lot.) So much of contemporary fiction about American Indians is set on the rez and There There breaks new ground, set in the rough streets of inner city Oakland CA. It is vulgar and written with, as one reviewer put it, “A rush of intensity and fervor… bursting with talent and big ideas… Funny and profane and conscious of the violence that runs like a scar thorough American culture.” Ron Charles calls is “Masterful… White-hot. A devastating debut novel.” It has been described in extraordinary ways; Margaret Atwood says it is “astonishing” and Dwight Garner in the New York Times writes of his “Bravura… There There has so much jangling energy and brings so much news from a distinct corner of American life that it’s a revelation. Its appearance marks the passing of a generational baton.”

I am not sure why I couldn’t put it down. It was excellently, passionately written; the characters were all so very intriguing (and most all pretty different.) There was the device of going back to earlier parts of the main characters lives so there was some sort of epic, intergenerational thing going on (including a sub-plot about how some of the American Indian Movement radical activism perhaps influence the younger children of adult activists.) So much going on, so many new insights and experiences about which I’ve never read. It really was a troubling, moving read – with a non-fiction forward about Native people’s history that is itself nearly worth a literary prize for extraordinary prose.

The Solace of Water: A Novel Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 Several of our staff have just adored this fascinating story that gives a very thoughtful and unexpected twist on the “Amish” fiction genre. Younts lives in Central Pennsylvania and the novel is set in the 1950s in a rural community in Pennsylvania. The well-written plot revolves around two women in great grief – an African American woman who has moved North from the Jim Crow South and a local Amish woman. They initially bond over their losses – both have lost children (and in one case, water was involved.) The author believes that it is “eminently relevant to the beauty and struggle in America today.” What a lovely, thoughtful, serious and eloquent book – Beth was very taken with it and has been telling others!

The Cloister: A Novel James Carroll (Nan Talese/Doubleday) $27.95 You may know Carroll as a left-wing Catholic who has written widely about mendacity and complicity and corrupt money in our public lives. He has called the church to greater commitments to integrity and justice. He also, by the way, wrote one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us for which he won the American Book Award in 1996. (That book, by the way, eloquently tells of his increasing involvement in the anti-Viet Nam war movement even as his father was a strategist for the war at the Pentagon and family friends with President Johnson’s family. It is one of the important books in my life and my dad and I talked about it deeply.) The Cloister is Mr. Carroll’s first novel and it is a modern-day re-working of the famous medieval illicit love story of Aberlard and Heloise – set in the The Cloisters in New York City. (Ha – bet you didn’t see that coming.) Nicholas Delbanco says it is “wonder-filled” and another reviewer says it is an “enlightening, vitally important book, a necessity for our time.” There are overlapping narrative arcs (the lovers are a Catholic priest and a French Jewish woman) as the story moves from the Nazi holocaust to the Crusades to the “startling mysteries of prejudice, brutality, and love.” One writer compared it to All the Light We Cannot See and another says, “like all the best fiction, it commandeers the reader’s heart.” I am really looking forward to it.

Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) $27.00 Am I the only literate person left in North America who hasn’t read this yet? Beth loved it and lots of folks are talking about it so if you have been dragging your feet on this, why not order it now? It is, as you may know, a much-acclaimed work about family, a deeply empathetic reflection on the perplexities of our lives. Terry McMillan says she is a “powerful and poignant writer” and Jodi Picoult says “I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting.” Set in Shaker Heights, a rich suburb outside of Cleveland, Little Fires Everywhere is about “the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood.”

Ng is known for exploring the experiences of Asian Americans (as in her stunning debut Everything I Never Told You) and a sub-plot includes a debate about a white family attempting to adopt a Chinese baby and how the potentially adopting parents are or aren’t aware of the complexities of such things. Little Fires has been called “witty” and “wise” and “tender” and “engrossing.” Let’s read it!

Everything I Never Told You Celeste Ng (Penguin) $16.00 Beth tell us that in her opinion Everything… is even better than the excellent Little Fires Everywhere. Again, it is a deep and heartfelt portrait of a family. Full of pathos about the mysterious death of a teen, it might be compared to The Lovely Bones The Los Angeles Review of Books noted that “Ng moves gracefully… creating a series of mysteries and revelations that lead back to the original question: what happened to Lydia. Masterful.” It is “wonderfully moving, a beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief that will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama.” A thoughtful and passionate Christian friend who is Asian American and speaks of the challenges of growing up as a minority in these times quipped once that folks should read this because “it explains everything.”

Behold the Dreamers: A Novel Imbolo Mbue (Random House) $17.00 We have mentioned this before as it has won bunches of awards and been listed on “best book” lists by everyone from NPR to The New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews and more. The Times review called it “capacious and big hearted” and another reviewer said it “plumbs the desires and disappointments of our emerging global culture.” As an Oprah Book Club selection, you can imagine it is compassionate and stirring, offering a window into the lives of immigrants. In the story, Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, are Cameroonian immigrants living in Harlem with their six-year-old son; Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers and Neni works for the same family in their summer home in the Hamptons. This is set in 2007 as Lehman Brothers is collapsing, so, well, wow.

The Leavers Lisa Ko (Algonquin) $15.95 This remarkable book is beautifully written and ambitious and was a just deserved National Book Award Finalist. It also won the PEN award and the Bellwether Prize for Fiction which was created by Barbara Kingsolver for socially conscious novels. (Aside: we are taking pre-orders for the much-anticipated Barbara Kingsolver novel called Unsheltered which releases October 16.)

The Leavers is about 11 year old Deming Guo whose mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant working in a nail salon, goes missing. Deming is adopted by a well-meaning white couple who changes his name to Daniel. The book is told from the perspectives of both the child Daniel and missing mother, Polly. In O, The Oprah Magazine, she says “Here is imperative reading: a vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don’t. Ko gives us an unsparing portrait of the resilience and grit it takes to risk everything to break free of tradition and start over in a foreign land.” People called it “dazzling.”

and Beulah: A Sequel to Jabbok Kee Sloan (Peake Road/Mercer University Press) $18.99 each Sometimes we discover lesser known sources for good books, publishers of independent spirit but high quality. University Presses are usually brilliant, but often price themselves out of the market, so to speak, or are just too scholarly or obscure. Here are two very fine, very accessible novels published by the literary imprint of Mercer University Press; I bet you’ve never heard of them. They are, as you might expect from a publisher in Macon Georgia, rooted in deep Southern culture, and they are a genuine delight. In the first book, Jabbok, Buddy Hinton, a young boy who lives in the country outside of Vicksburg Mississippi, meets Jake,

an older, black fisherman, ex-convict, former tent preacher – and their friendship deepens. It captures the late 50s boyhood of the south (including a serious lot about racism and other sorrows.) I think you will be hooked by the first sentence and the first moving paragraph of the Prelude.

We were happy after ordering Jabbok to learn that the late, great Phyllis Tickle was an advocate for these books.

Listen to what Phyllis wrote about Jabbok:

I love this book. I am a writer and I am supposed to be able to say something elegant and impressive about a book, not something so cliché as, ‘I love this book.’ I just know I want to read Jabbok one more time, which is what I knew the last time I finished reading it. I love this book.

By the start of the second story, Beulah, Buddy Hinton is a newly ordained Episcopal priest serving a small congregation in Mississippi. Here is what the Reverend says about the second novel, Beulah:

This is the story of my continuing education, in different classrooms, with three new teaches: JoJo McCain, John Cahill, and especially and most wonderfully, Beulah Grace Bayer.

I suppose it isn’t fair to invoke the name Wendell Berry or Jayber Crow; I shouldn’t compare it to the popular Father Tim stories of the sweetly named Mitford series but maybe these might appeal to those who love such tender stories of rural and small town life. The Rt. Rev. John McKee Sloan is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. He went to seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee and was ordained to bishop suffragan in 2008. He and his wife both grew up in the Mississippi Delta.

Not that it matters much, but it is very interesting to me that in the second book, Buddy Hinton works in a summer camp for campers with disabilities; in the acknowledgements, Rev. Sloan says that he did this in the early 70s. As you may know, Beth and I ourselves both worked at Camp Harmony Hall, run by the Easter Seal Society in the early and mid-70s. No wonder I liked this guy! Let’s help get the stories of Jabbok and Beulah become better known. Who knows, maybe Sloan is writing a third…

Caroline: Little House, Revisited Sarah Miller (William Morrow) $15.99 We announced this when it was out in hardback and we’re glad it’s now in a more affordable paperback edition. Beth adored it, but not everyone will, we suppose. It is, in fact, an imaginative re-telling of the Little House stories from the point of view of Ma. Isn’t that a great idea? It is impeccably researched and was authorized by Little House Heritage Trust and is very well done.

Caroline is surely one of America’s most famous frontier women and this is a fabulous look at her inner life. Sarah Miller has written historical nonfiction and several historical fiction works and it is Beth’s sense that she knows what she’s doing and she really got Caroline right. She talked about it as she was reading it, day after day – what fun! As Refinery20 put it, “Little House on the Prairie fans, prepare to fall in love with your favorite characters all over again.”

The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There Shawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99 We wanted to suggest at least something in the “speculative fiction” genre and for those that like fantasy – and have already finished the must-read Steve Lawhead, In the Region of the Summer Stars, Book One of the Eirlandia series) – these two are among the best of the year. Shawn is a well-respected writer and a great guy.

The Day the Angels came out to great acclaim last year; it remains in hardback ($17.99) but is also now available in paperback ($14.99.) One of the all-time great compliments was given to Mr. Smucker when the well-read and always astute Anne Bogel (of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog) described The Day the Angels Fell as “Neil Gaiman meets Madeleine L’Engle.”

Foreword Reviews wrote of it:

The otherworldly and the mundane collide in Shawn Smucker’s The Day the Angels Fell, a humanizing tale of cosmic proportions.

Yep, this is supernatural fiction (of cosmic proportions, no less) that another reviewer curiously compared to Ray Bradbury. You see, this really is thoughtful Christian fantasy fiction at its finest.

The new one, The Edge of Over There, is just out (in a fantastic hardback design for $17.99), a fine sequel that itself has gotten good reviews. Here’s the official summary:

When Abra Miller goes to New Orleans Cemetery No. 1 to search for the Tree of Life, she discovers a city teetering on the edge of chaos, people desperate for a way out, and an enemy intent on enslaving the human race.

We are very pleased to announce that author Shawn Smucker will be visiting our store in mid October to do some readings from these two novels, talk a bit about writing (and tell us about a book that will be out then about his work with refugee resettlement in Lancaster, PA. The book about that, Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor is due out October 16, 2018.) You should know this author; it won’t be the last you’ve heard of him, I promise. Why not pick up both The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There. If you get the first in hardback they’ll match nicely.

Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel* Jonathan Miles (Hogarth $27.00 I hope you know this fascinating, talented author who has been widely reviewed and critically acclaimed. I gave a shout out about how intriguing this book was before I read it and now that I’ve spent many pleasurable days immersed in its captivating story I can say it is one of my favorite books of the year. Miles has always been a social critic who seems familiar with questions of faith and religion. (See his acclaimed Dear American Airlines and especially Want Not.) This recent novel is equally rich in themes that matter.

Anatomy of a Miracle tells of an Afghanistan vet who is a paraplegic, wounded warrior, in a wheelchair, who is mysteriously and unexpectedly healed on his way to get smokes at a run-down, inner city convenience store called the Biz-E-Bee run by an enterprising and funny Vietnamese family in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. Any number of zealots, reporters, medical specialists and military officials want to know what happened and what ensues is a circuitous and complex set of investigations to determine if miracles occur, and if so, if this qualifies for one. There are utter secularists, faith healers, scientists, and a Vatican official who has reasons to need to know if this blue-collar vet is pulling off a hoax, especially when a reality TV show documents his sometimes unsavory lifestyle.

I have rarely read a mainstream, popular novel so course and so touching, so profane and yet fluent in Christian apologetics, so aware of the complexities of faith in a secular age. I couldn’t put it down and, even now, wish the character Cameron Harris and his sister and long lost lover well. That’s part of what a good novel does – helps us care about the characters. I think that might make us better people, but I suppose that would be a miracle that’s hard to prove, too. Regardless, we’ve staked our careers on it: stories matter. This is a fascinating one that is very well told and which raises tons of vital questions and I think would make a great book club selection. Kudos.


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“Disruptive Witness” by Alan Noble and 10 other books to read along with it – 20% OFF at Hearts & Minds

A month or more ago at BookNotes I invited you to pre-order a few forthcoming books that I suggested were important. One, which is now available, is getting lots of fascinating reviews at least in the deeper end of the religious writing pool. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age is by Alan Noble, published by InterVarsity Press ($16.00) and it is, doubtlessly, an important book that is well worth working through. It doesn’t offer simple spirituality or easy inspiration in a conventional sense but it is deeply spiritual and, if one follows through with its angle of cultural criticism and the action proposals it offers, you will find that it is inspirational in the very best sense.

That is a big “if”, though, and in a sense, that is what Disruptive Witness is about.

When Jesus said, “let he who has ears to hear, hear” his listeners didn’t have, in Bruce Springsteen’s words, “57 channels and nothin’ on.” That is, the distractions that are everywhere these days (and their eventual emptiness that creates an ennui among us) are baked right into the cake of modernity; that constant distraction that is the very air we breath, keeps us from hearing well.

You get that, I guess, just from looking at this wild, odd cover of a swirling day-glo icon — postmodern Byzantine, right? That’s it!

As James K.A. Smith in his brilliant How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00) explains, the world-class Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written profoundly and deeply to show us how the tensions of the modern age and the secularism that it has brought has rendered much of our lives in our era, not to mention our religious sensibilities, shallow, contradictory, and confused. Like the frog in the kettle accommodated to the rising temperatures, we don’t even realize the mess we’re in.

There’s this modern day baggage in our secular age; we are haunted (not fully atheistic) but have echoes of stuff in our heads, a longing, but little resolution. We can’t help but experience things, well, the way the world is these days.

Just for instance, part and parcel of the “social imaginary” (Taylor’s phrase, by which he means something like a worldview) of our times is consumerism. When everything is on sale 24/7 and ubiquitous advertisements appeal to our sense of story and what the good life is supposed to be about, and we can shop even at the push of a button, nearly everything we do becomes a choice to consume (ever hear of the phrase “church shopping”? Isn’t it true that one of our primary identities these days is no longer, say, citizen, but consumer?) That is, the gospel’s saving message and the call to be involved in a local church is heard and experienced as merely the same sort of ad pitch that the car dealers and political parties and porn sites and grocery stores and fashion lines use to sway our wants and capture our wallets with their brands. Everything is mediated and so even those who find themselves attracted to the gospel or a local church think – at least on a subconscious level – that they chose this faith for their own reasons, to enhance their own selves, just like when we buy any other product, and it ends up being about as important, sometimes, as a choice for a kind of soap or a Friday night movie. What kind of faith can develop and mature when we think of Jesus’ grace as a product we bought? Something I liked? Nothing comes to us just as it is and the secularized, pluralizing worldview and background frame of our modern times makes it hard to grapple with notions of real truth and honest faith.

Behind or below this consumerism, where everything has a price and can be purchased by yourself (thank you very much, slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am) is, of course, the idolatry of the self. Since we feel that we live in a mechanistic and “closed” universe, any deep religious feelings we conjure are just there because we chose them, manageable. Charles Taylor calls this the “buffered self” and Noble explains it all very helpfully, although it is still complex. His story about working with different kind of characters at Sears really made it come alive. His coming to realize how some other youth did or didn’t understand the gospel words he was using was also helpful.

This is where Noble starts the book. The first few chapters are a thick and mature overview of Charles Taylor and his monumental A Secular Age. Somewhat like Jamie Smith’s popularization, Alan Noble, too, brings the heady academic jargon of Taylor into more common parlance and helps us see how notions of cross tension and social imaginaries and secularization and consumerism and the buffered self combine to create an ethos and frame of experience that makes living coherently and hearing the gospel plainly just really, really hard. (The easiest, shortest overview of Taylor, by the way, and why he is helpful, chapter five of Timothy Keller’s small Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism about knowing the context of those who hear our sermons and he explains why knowing a bit about the Taylor thesis will make us wiser Bible preachers or teachers.) We may not even realize how much we’ve breathed the air of “this secular age” and its pressures and styles and forms and attitudes — not just the ideas! – until we read Noble’s descriptions and allow him to remind us how complicated it may be to share God’s goodness and the message of Christ’s Kingdom with others in this distracted age.

Add to this Noble’s considerable awareness of and candor about how many of us are nearly addicted to our smart phones – I laughed when he says he even uses it in the bathroom – and how literally distracted we are with the beeps and buzzes and notices from our ubiquitous devices. There are many books about this these days, from the practical 12 Ways Your Cell Phone Has Changed You by Tony Reinke to Andy Crouch’s wonderful Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place to the serious Distracted: The Erosion of Attention in the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson and it is good that Noble plumbs some of the implications of electronic distraction. We all know this is really, really important, but few of us study it, let alone do much about it. I like how Alan calls us to the simple (well, not so simple, after all) task of silence and solitude so we can contemplate and wrestle with ideas.  How can we do that when we are so busy, so saturated by constant connection with content, or just “move on” to the next curious thing?  Watch this short video to hear Noble nicely explaining this dilemma, and this second one about why giving up tech isn’t an adequate answer.  Nice stuff.

Noble explains his project in Disruptive Witness forthrightly. Read this carefully:

To understand the contemporary challenge of bearing witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to consider our way of life in this distracted age, and what effect it has on our ability to reflect, contemplate, and respond with conviction. With the help of Charles Taylor and others, we will explore what it means to live in a secular age and how this compounds the effects of distraction to create a deep and largely unacknowledged barrier to belief for most people.

A “barrier to belief”?

Wow. That is a notable part of our cultural condition, the framework and background noise which shapes how people lean into and experience life these days. And, again, this isn’t just because of bad ideas or ideological media; our very cultural practices — having so many choices of TV shows or making our own decisions about health care or using Yelp to help us “crowd source” where to eat or vacation, controlling so much with the push of a button – all subtly inform our ways of thinking and evaluating stuff day by day. Including the things we hear about faith and spirituality. Hence, our discipleship – not to mention our efforts to share the gospel with others – is not exactly compromised, but colored, misunderstood, framed a certain way. Like it or not, these are crazy times and with the eye of a literature prof and the awareness of a philosophy geek, Noble offers some keen diagnosis about the distractions and what they to do us and how they may constrict our religious witness in the world.

(And, just for a bit of a spoiler, you should know Dr. Noble got his Masters and PhD in contemporary literature. So he values reading, including modern novels. How ’bout that as a radical solution to some of our problems!)

Okay, so we’re distracted and secularized, missing out on the deepest transforming spiritual power that comes, in part, from a fully Christian worldview that is laden with passion and wonder and goodness and beauty and more. How in the world do we more deeply experience – and more importantly, help our neighbors and the rising generations – learn to encounter wonder? How do we even find time and space to ponder things?  What conditions might help us be more faithful and fruitful in this buffered, secular age? How can we help people who are “searching for visions of fullness?” And what is fullness, anyway? What is a deep, good, life?

The second half of this ambitious book offers three large meditations on strategies we can use to resist, to disrupt, the distraction and secularizing ethos of our times. To make a way through the noise towards the fullness of life. He offers deep, philosophical notions and then backs them up with theological insights and proposes ordinary practices that emerge from his own efforts and stories. In a way, this is the biggest strategy of all – we simply must be more attentive to the real, the down to Earth, nurturing virtue by way of daily practices. We have to do stuff well, and show how it points beyond ourselves to the God who is there, in a world that is loved. How do we become agents of that kind of disruption?


There are three parts in the second half and I cannot here do justice to these complex and finally practice proposals. There are three areas he explores that, he believes, we as God’s people, as Christ’s church, are going to have to offer some counter-narrative so that others can actually make sense of and be attracted to the message of God’s goodness. We will need these strategies of resistance if we are to bear fruit in some ways that will help erode the distraction and break through the brass ceiling of our secular age.

First he looks at disruptive personal practices, followed by a chapter on church practices, and finally, ways to be disruptive in our cultural participation.  He does not mean wildly acting up and protesting and such, so don’t misunderstand his use of “disruption.” He is subtle and thoughtful, pushing towards practices that can subvert the negative tendencies of our cultural assumptions and habits.

As I’ve said, he has three separate chapters on fruitful disruptive practices in our personal lives, in our congregational lives and in our public lives. There’s plenty to think about a lots to try out.  (And lots to discuss with others, so you really should consider buying more than one since your going to have to talk over this stuff with some friends.)

In a way, this approach is very much like what James K.A. Smith does in the urgent You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and what Tish Harrison Warren does in her lovely Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. This book is a bit more dense than those, but if you’ve read those, this maybe should come next.

One fun thing and personally reward thing  I’ll share – Noble is convinced (following Taylor and Smith) that for our sakes, yes, but, more, for our neighbors’s sakes, we should learn to live “allusively” (a phrase he gets from Calvin Seerveld’s amazing, allusive work Rainbows for the Fallen World which, if you will allow me this brag, we sold to him.) That is, there is a creative/artistic side to our human experience and the use of our imaginations – so often captured by popular tastes and popular culture – need to be redeemed and deepened so that we can be more colorful and curious. I hardly know any book – even those that are written about aesthetics and the arts – that draws on Seerveld’s Rainbows as much as one of the chapters in this book does. Noble is wise to show that this imaginative way of living with greater attention to the arts and daily aesthetics helps us take in more of life as we should, but also to bear witness to God’s hopeful, richly human, wholesome ways in this world. Noble’s part about beauty is very, very nicely done.

Further, that he ends the book with an extended reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s disturbing, important novel, The Road, reminds us that this is serious stuff, this longing for beauty in a fallen world. Wow.

And so, we are thrilled to once again commend to you a serious summer read, a book of cultural analysis and deft critique of the forces of modernity and post-modernity, that, while slogging through some serious stuff, is still loaded with brilliant ideas and practical suggestions. We commend this book to help you and yours thinking intentionally about the nature of our witness in this hot-wired, saturated age.

As Karen Swallow Prior says, Alan Noble is “asking all the right questions and leading us to better answers.”




I trust I’m not the only one that is often reading several books at the same time. And often, they are paired intentionally. I’m currently slogging through a chapter a night of the magisterial, hefty, fascinating and sometimes funny bit of cultural critique by the National Review wild man Jonah Goldberg, The Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. That he doesn’t cite Taylor is regrettable, but it is a remarkable genealogy of the ideas and habits of heart that have shaped American views of democracy and capitalism. Intellectual history is fascinating to help us see how we got where we are…

So come on, buy a couple of books, read them simultaneously or back to back, and get thinking about how you can become disruptive in this crazy world.

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00 I have said before that this is a great way to understand our modern and postmodern era; it is a one-volume lesson in discerning and urgent cultural analysis. The always incisive Guinness (with his PhD degree studying the work of sociologist Peter Berger) brings out many of the themes he has explored before – how, just for instance, speed and choice and change have disrupted traditional ways of knowing and believing. He shows how modernity itself has eroded the very notion of authority. Of course he explores how we in the evangelical churches, especially, have too often attempted to link the gospel to marketing, the growth of technology, and such. Have these things come back to haunt us? Have forces we’ve too often ignored actually displaced our first love of the gospel itself? What will it take to be bold, principled, people who will rise up and say no to unfaithful compromise and unhelpful patterns? I have written before in greater detail why I think this is a very important book, sounding an alarm as it does, and read it now would be a another way to understand the need for what Noble calls “disruptive practices” in our personal, church, and cultural lives. If you’re reading Alan Noble, you should (seriously) buy this, too!

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion Os Guinness (IVP) $22.00 This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind study which we raved about here at BookNotes when it came out in 2015. Considered by some a magnum opus, it was 40 years in the making, drawing on broad and historically informed cultural studies, incisive insights about apologetics, and a mash-up of three of Guinness’s most decisive influences – C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Peter Berger. Granted, as Alan Noble explains (and as Os himself admits) the times are complex, the ideas and the structures and habits of culture often a large obstacle, but we can still learn how best to persuade. There is an art to learning these ways of persuasion, and Guinness has thought about this for a lifetime. Highly recommended. (By the way, just a parenthetical shout out, here: we expect any day his brand new revised and expanded 20th anniversary edition of The Call: Finding and Fulfilling Your Greatest Purpose, which remains one of my all time favorite books.)

Evangelism After Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness Bryan Stone (Baker Academic) $21.99  We have oodles of books about how better to share one’s faith and wish we sold more Despite the good and helpful social analysis offering in books like the Alan Noble (above) we still need to keep trying to talk face to face to people about things that matter most This remarkable volume, though, is less a practical “how to” do better evangelism, but a rich and deep study of — as Noble asks — how to even think about evangelism given what we know about communication in “the secular age” and the buffered nature of our selves. Stone has read his Taylor and any other deep cultural critics and he has drunk wisely from the wells of some of our best mainline denominational thinkers — from George Lindbeck to Rowan Williams to Lamin Sanneh to Kathyrn Tanner. I like his counter-cultural posture (citing early church fathers and mothers and modern radical saints like Dorothy Day.) He cites my hero Ron Sider and asks seriously what embodied Christian witness looks like in an era such as ours. Stone is associate dean for academic affairs and E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at the Boston University School of Theology. You may recall his book Evangelism After Christendom, which also would be a good, serious read for those exploring foundational stuff about worldviews and culture and sharing the gospel well. For what it is worth, not surprisingly, Evangelism After Pluralism has rave reviews on the back from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas as well as rising scholars such as Joon-Sik Park (of Methodist Theological School in Ohio) and Duke’s Laceye Warner, who calls it a “must-read.”

Localism in a Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto edited by Mark T. Mitchell & Jason Peters (Front Porch Republic Books) $32.00 This fabulously interesting and curious collection takes more time than I’ve got here, now, to explain. In a sense, the title evokes much – the “front porch republic” is a movement that is, mostly, localist and conservative. (That is, they want to conserve, so they tend to be cranky about suburban sprawl and big Wal Marts and global wars and utopian dreams.) Although Wendell Berry isn’t in here, his spirit hovers near several of the chapters.

It’s a big book of 30 chapters and authors such as the fantastic, fun Bill Kauffman (of Muckdog Gazette) and the now well-known Patrick Deneen (even former President Obama is reading Why Liberalism Failed) are representative of the different tones and styles and views. There are several scholars from well- known evangelical Christian colleges, each calling in their own way for us to pay attention and be stewards of our places and thereby offering an alternative vision to the tired old left/right distinction. I like the blurbs on the back by the always-feisty new urbanist, James Howard Kunstler and the always-lovely memoirist Scott Russell Sanders. I do not know what Alan Noble thinks about decentralization or cultural regionalism or other localist notions presented here but Localism in a Mass Age is a profound call to renew families and deepen relationships and work for economies of scale which, religious or not (and some essays clearly are) seem to be practices of disruption to our blandly secularized culture. Front Porchers just might have something to say to this vision of disruption that Noble invites us to, and I wanted to suggest this manifesto anthology as a way to discover other ways to develop a sensible, local lifestyle consistent with his hope of undoing the spirit of the age.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Matthew Crawford (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) $16.00 From time to time I enjoy reminding people about Crawford’s first big book, Shop Class as Soul Craft which was, although a bit heady, a call to rediscover the joys of working with one’s hands, of his own departure from a white collar think-tank to starting his own motorcycle repair shop. What do we lose when we gush about the information age or digital culture and defund shop classes and trade schools? The World Beyond Your Head continues these questions, offering more vintage Crawford, investigating the challenging of mastering crafts and how some workers have done well in taking up their jobs as vocations. Of course, as with Noble, is has the word “distraction” in the title, although he may be reflecting a bit more deeply than Noble on kinds of distractions we encounter. The World Beyond Your Head is in a way a study about digital culture vs. “real world” work and how abstraction messes with our minds. Does learning to pay attention to and have focus upon our bodies (by way of manual work) have anything to do with Alan Noble’s “disruption” challenges in his Disruptive Witness: Speaking the Truth in a Distracted Age? What role does embodiment play in Noble’s vision? How about a dose of Crawford, here, who says, “attention sculpts the self”? Do you recall that quotable line from James K.A. Smith when he insists that “the things we do, do things to us”? Do you know Nicholas Carr’s elegant but alarming books The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us? Noble is truly concerned about this stuff and I wish he’d have engaged Matthew Crawford as a conversation partner.

Here is how the publisher writes about this remarkable book:

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self.

Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time Brian Walsh (Wipf & Stock) $17.00 I know you know that I regularly suggest reading Walsh. From his early The Transforming Vision and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (co-authored with Richard Middleton) to a deep study of place and mobility (Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, co-authored with Steven Bouma-Prediger) through his study of Bruce Cockburn as a way to think about imagination and the arts, to the Wine Without Breakfast Bible studies and worship litanies (St. John Before Breakfast and Habakkuk Before Breakfast) to his must-read Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (co-authored with his Biblical scholar/organic farmer and bio-regional activist wife, Sylvia Keesmaat) we see over and over in his work a deeply Biblical world and life vision that necessarily says no to the dysfunctional ways of the culture (and the powers that be) when they are in opposition to a Biblically-informed vision of flourishing, gracious love and justice, and care for all of creation. Walsh preaches the Bible with breathtaking adeptness, hearing the echoes and connecting the dots and knows economics and philosophy; he writes about the arts and ancient archeology; he knows homeless folks and hangs out with the marginalized even when he’s writing chapters in books about or with other Biblical scholars (such as his friend N.T. Wright.) Brian is in many ways one of my mentors and a thoughtful example of ways to be deeply rooted – radical, that is – and subversive against the idols and ideologies of the culture. I wish I had his Bible knowledge, his relentless passion, and his guts.

I wonder how Alan Noble’s project – carefully spelling out practices to disrupt Taylor’s secular age and buffered self and obsession with social media accounts – might have sounded a bit different if he would have been informed by the books of Brian Walsh? I suggest this one, Subversive Christianity, for starters, as it is a collection of several lengthy essays deconstructing contemporary culture and evangelicalism compromises with it, as well as powerfully calling out of modernist thinkers who make an idol out of growth and so-called progress and bigness and success and power. He does more than draw on Jeremiah, he nearly embodies him! I think we need this poignant, powerful call to subvert the idols and to be used by God to see alternative visions of life and hope held up and lived out, and Subversive helps us do just that. His important chapter about imaging God and his several that draw on Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination (and, subsequently, the role of grief and lament) are essential for those of us that want to struggle with what it means to navigate fidelity in the midst of the current empire and the secular age. Subversive Christianity is a book you should know; you will learn much and be stretched. It may be unlike most authors you are reading. It will give you courage. It is a small book that you will never forget.

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $26.99   We recently did two reviews of this at BookNotes, one rather long, so I hope you know that we are fans, even if I wasn’t confident, at first, that this book would be that interesting to me or important for serving the cause of of the flourishing of the common good. We’re very glad to report that it is exceptionally well-written, deep, good stuff, and that we think it deserves the acclaim that it has been getting. Grateful is a fabulous, inspiring book to read over the summer. The whole business of happiness and gratitude and such is being researched by scientists and while Diana is a social scientist and spiritual writer, she does discuss some of the brain studies data and such. It is certainly timely and a topic many are interested in.

But mostly, Grateful is a visionary call to see life differently, to embrace a vision of abundance, of life being a gift, of living not out of rigid and demanding reciprocity but of grace. What kind of a culture, she wonders, might we have if we had the eyes, the heart, to be grateful?

Well, I want to put this in conversation with Charles Taylor and Jamie Smith’s stuff about practices and, now, Alan Noble as well with his call to be “disruptive” of the secular age. In what ways might Diana’s proposed practices of living into gratitude and building a culture of abundance – dearly missing within late modern capitalism that is experience as consumerism – underscore or highlight the allusive and aesthetic sort of lifestyle Noble suggests? I think these two books would pair well together and although they have different spiritual orientations (she is a progressive Episcopalian with and interest in politics and church and he is a moderate Baptist with an interest in politics and liturgy) I think they would compliment each other nicely. In fact, in Noble’s section on better evangelical approaches to cultural engagement in which he talks about reading novels and hosting book clubs he writes nicely about how some stories can teach us to be attentive to gratitude and beauty. Nice.

Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance Benjamin J. Dueholm (Eerdmans) $16.99 I so, so want to recommend this and admit from the start that it deserves its own long review; I can only suggest a bit about it now. Dueholm is a Lutheran pastor who is also skilled as a great writer – his sentences are truly a delight to read – while his theological vision is provocative and interesting and generative. Here, as you might guess, he is showing how the church’s most elemental practices are themselves subversive to the secularized culture in which we live. Had this book been out previously (it came just this week) Alan Noble might have used it for his own chapter on disruptive practices in the local congregation.

I’m part way through Sacred Signposts and really enjoying it. I agree with Kaya Oakes who says “Benjamin Dueholm elegantly and thoughtfully moves us through a Christianity of resistance to our own torpor and into a Christianity of embodiment.” See why I want to pair it with Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness?

Here is partially how Dueholm describes what he’s doing in this lovely, provocative volume: “These Christian practices,” he says:

represent and enact a different vision of what it means to be good, or even to be human, from the ones offered by our prominent political and economic ideologies. Christians have names for this different vision. We call it ‘the Kingdom of God’ or ‘the beloved community.’ And it is realized, in ways that are small and fleeting but also urgent and poignant, every time we gather around our holy possessions.

Here is some of what Eerdmans has said about it:

In this book Dueholm unpacks Christianity’s seven “holy possessions,” which function as signposts–words, water, bread and wine, confession and forgiveness, ministry, worship, and suffering–and he offers a visionary account of the critical, radical, life-affirming role that faith can play in a secular, post-Christian world.

The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act Adam Hearlson (Eerdmans) $24.00 With this boldly subversive, nay-saying title, you can see why I might want to commend this alongside the profound study of the secular age by Alan Noble. Hearlson, a UCC pastor, puzzles out a bit about worship and liturgy as counter-cultural and formative in ways to help us resist distraction; good worship should help us understand God’s transformative work in our lives, and help us bear witness well in the world. But to do that, we must be resistant. How ‘bout a book that just shouts it – The Holy No!

Well, I’m not sure this is what Alan Noble means, and the book is more academically rooted and studious than I’d wished. Although the popular and often very inspiring Brian McLaren says it is “as brilliant an exploration of the act of worship I’ve ever seen” I found it not as arresting as I thought it might be, in part because it is a demanding read. But, whew, Hearlson’s on to something here and this is well worth working through, especially for those involved in mainline denominational worship contexts who appreciate this teasing out of the political implications of our gatherings and rites. Do good rites lead to equal rights?

And Rev. Hearlson does draw on remarkable sources – some predictable (the feminist Mud Flower Collective, Max Harris’s study of feast of fools called Sacred Folly, Alice Walker, bell hooks) and some which delightfully surprised me (he talks about Levon Helm from The Band, Alan Lomax field recordings from the deep South, even the rock band Fugazi.) His scholarly background includes significant engagement with Pierre Bourdieu the fieldwork sociologist. (Oh I wish he’d have cited Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World by Christian Scharen, edited by James Smith.) Do a bit of ethnography to bolster his case makes sense; Hearlson is helping us see the implications of worship curated to be a prophetic cry so studying how things work on the ground is important. Besides the many odd-ball sources, he draws on Barth and, more so, Moltmann and a few high Catholic liturgy scholars and lots from the black church tradition as well. I can report happily that he cites Jeremy Begbie on music, which never hurts. Do you remember ‘Red’ from The Shawshank Redemption? He shows up too. Maybe hearing this kind of frank, serious stuff could supplement Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness.

So, left-wing and academic as it is, The Holy No is a good read; stimulating and challenging for some of us, I’m sure. Hearlson is a UCC pastor and has also taught at mainline seminaries so there’s lots of talk about power structures and solidarity with the marginalized and worship as political practice. Good blurbs on the back read like a who’s who in homiletics – Luke Powery, Thomas Long, Cleophus LaRue, Liz Theoharis. Rev. Hearlson insists that preaching, music, sacraments and art can “sabotage oppressive structures of the world for the sake of the gospel” and that Christians can say a “Holy No to oppression and injustice through our worship.”

Interrupting Silence God’s Command to Speak Out: A Bible Study for Adults Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $14.00 Walt Brueggemann is very important to me for many reasons, but in the context of the theme of this newsletter — riffing off of the insights of Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness —I might note that Brueggemann is not only a master Old Testament scholar and evocative Bible teacher, but he is exceptionally well read, especially in the social sciences and history and in what we might call cultural studies. So all of his rich Scriptural teaching is somewhat shaped by worldviewish vision and cultural critique. (Indeed, his old, extraordinary, brief book The Bible Makes Sense starts with two “bad” acculturated views of the Bible, showing ways the left-brain, establishment rationalists and the lefty, counter-cultural romantics each misread the very meaning of the Biblical drama which cannot be tamed and dare not be turned into an ideology of the right or the left.) Anyway, this new pithy book by Brueggemann offers eight fairly short but potent Bible reflections — one from Exodus, one from Amos, one on a few verses from Psalm 32, and five New Testament texts, each with provocative study questions for a serious adult class. Each chapter runs about 10 profound, pages. Brueggemann-esque pages, that is, so you’re getting your money’s worth.

Perhaps these rich reminders from God’s Word will help us find insight and courage and wisdom to be able to break the silence and speak well, faithfully, into the culture of our times.

Here’s how the publisher puts it on the back cover:

Silence is a complex matter It can refer to awe before unutterable holiness, but it can always refer to the coercion where some voices are silenced in the interest of control by the dominant voices. It is the latter voices that Walter Brueggemann explores, urging us to speak up in situations of injustice

Interrupting Silence illustrates that the Bible is filled with stories where marginalized people break repressive silence and speak against it Examining how maintaining silence allows the powerful to keep control, Brueggemann motivates readers to consider situations in their lives where they need to either interrupt silence…

In telling you about Interrupting Silence I must note that I’m reminded of a brand new book I spoke about in my little video for last week’s BookNotes — Kathy Khang’s Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up (IVP; $16.00.) We all can use some extra help in learning when and why and how to speak up, and Ms. Khang not only reminds us to use our voice with (as Rachel Held Evans puts it) “holy force” but also has done some good work herself exploring the social, cultural, and familial forces the sometimes intimidate us.

Alongside Noble’s more philosophical social critique and more judicious disruptive, programmatic proposals, maybe committing to more intentionally “raising your voice” in order to “interrupt silence” could help. In fact, maybe this is where we must begin, being the “holy fools” Guinness calls us to be, taking risks to speak boldly, aware of the culture and the barriers of belief, but speaking out nonetheless. Sow those seeds with abandon, and see what happens. Study the culture well, yes, but never stop trying to proclaim the gospel in all its fullness. I trust these resources will not bog you down but build you up, equipping you to communicate well, indeed, to disrupt the distraction so we can speak truly good news to a hurting, needy world.  May reading these kinds of books bear that kind of fruit.


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BookNotes special: Join Byron in a 15 minute video presentation of books on Romans 13, a Biblical view of the State, and a book called “Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up” by Kathy Khang – ALL BOOKS MENTIONED 20% OFF

For this week’s BookNotes newsletter I thought I’d do something a little different. Rather than writing about a bunch of books, I thought I would just talk about them. Below is a homemade, cell phone video, live from the bookstore. It’s a mostly impromptu presentation – part lecture, part sermon, part infomercial — adding my voice to the conversations about Attorney General Sessions’ glib comment about Romans 13.

As you will hear, I wasn’t happy with the way this came down, but I don’t think it is that odd to say that the Bible teaches that we should (whenever possible, the big unspoken caveat) obey the government, since the state is God’s good gift to us and the rule of law is something to be underscored, appreciated, strengthened. I doubt if Mr. Sessions himself would make a firm idol out of obedience to the law no matter what and only the rarest person doesn’t appreciate that sometimes we simply must resist the government gone haywire. From Polycarp to Bishop Cranmer, from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad, from Bonhoeffer to Corrie Ten Boom, from Martin Luther King to Phil Berrigan, civil disobedience has a long and valid foundation in the Biblical teaching that “we must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5:29) From the midwives who saved Moses to Daniel to Peter to Paul (who wrote Romans 13, by the way) –not to mention our Lord and Savior – crossing paths with the authorities and ending up on the wrong side of the law, is a cost of discipleship.

And so, I thought it might be helpful to affirm the rule of law, think about a Biblical view of the state, and offer some resources for thinking well about civil disobedience and resistance and speaking up. I think most of the books I mentioned are pretty non-controversial (well, most, anyway) and I hope you enjoy listening to me as I highlight them off the cuff. Please ignore the times I stammered a bit… I really was winging this spiel.

Since I didn’t give the prices during my little book talk, I’ll list the titles and prices below. They are all 20% off here, and you can, per usual, order on line by using our secure order form page. Or give us a call or send an email.

I tell a bit about these books in the video so I’ll keep my written remarks brief. Please know, too, that there are so many others I could have mentioned. This goes 15 minutes as it is… let us know if you want other suggestions.  Sorry for this goofy opening picture…

For starters, too, since I suggest a few commentaries on Romans, I thought I’d link to two brief articles for your consideration about reading Romans 13 in the broader redemptive context of the full letter to the Romans. For instance, see the clear-headed, succinct statements of New Testament scholar Michael Gorman here. For a more frothy rebuttal to Mr. Session’s misappropriation of Romans 13, check out “To Hell with Romans 13” by my friend Brian Walsh. As anyone who knows Brian will attest, he loves and respects the Scriptures almost as much as anybody I know. Don’t be alarmed by the title of this sermon – he, of course, means to critique bad interpretations and the weaponizing of a few lines of Romans to justified injustice and privilege the status quo since. That’s what we have to send packing. Paul himself was writing to a beleaguered faith community who he was teaching how to be non-conformed to the evils and injustices of their imperial context under the boot heel of Rome, so using some principle from the 13th chapter to bolster injustice simply won’t do and should be an affront to anyone who cares about good exegesis and faithful witness.

Anyway, here’s my rather moderate plea to do some reading about Romans, about the state, and about how to speak out well, drawing on the wonderful new book by Kathy Khang called Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up (IVP; $16.00.)

I start off my talk with some suggestions for ordinary folks to read a few commentaries on Romans. I suggested these.

Romans 8 – 16 for You Timothy Keller (The Good Books Company) $22.99 We like this whole on-going series of Bible lessons that have some helpful application points. This is obviously the second volume of a two-volume pair on Romans. Get Romans 1 – 7 for You as well.



Paul for Everyone: Romans Part Two – Chapters 9 – 16 N.T. Wright (WJK) $18.00 We highly recommend the whole set of the “New Testament for Everyone” series as Wright offers creative translations, keen insights capturing the Older Testament echoes, helpful information about the social context, good Kingdom theology, and some helpful illustrations. Don’t forget, at least, Paul For Everyone: Romans Part One




The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Romans John Stott (IVP Academic) $20.00 As I explain in the video, the entire Bible Speaks Today series is a standard, go-to recommendation for us. They are mature and thoughtful, but not tooo critical or scholarly. Stott was the editor of the NT portion of the BST series and they are just so reliable, thoughtful, and relevant. He handles Romans 13 thoughtfully with good balance and insight. Highly recommended

I didn’t describe other Romans commentaries but we have plenty, from the straight-arrow, rigorous (Douglas Moo in the Eerdmans NICNT series is magisterial but his NIV Application Commentary is more accessible for ordinary Bible teacher or preachers) to some that are particularly insightful about the epistle’s political background and anti-Imperial message such as Neil Elloitt’s The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Many of us are awaiting next year’s Romans Disarmed by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat, coming eventually from Brazos Press.

I also suggested that it would be wise just to study the life and teachings of Paul. There’s so, so much, but I gave a quick shout out to Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright (HarperOne; $29.99.) I think the impressive, passionate scholar Douglas Campbell’s recent Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (Eerdmans; $22.00) sure looks great. And you really should know Reading Paul by the aforementioned Michael J. Gorman. (Cascade; $22.00.) I really should have mentioned that one last night, since I linked to his Facebook post on reading Romans 13 in context.

After suggesting a dive into Paul, and Romans, I suggested that we study up on a Christian view of the state. I hope you didn’t mind my insisting that we stop taking our cues from secular political theorists or popular culture or our political party of choice but allow the Word of God to illumine our thinking about government and its task.

I named these:

God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today N.T. Wright (SPCK) $18.00 These are lectures given by the great New Testament prof on justice, government, public life, political theology and faithful civic engagement. This was published in England (where Wright goes by Tom rather than N.T. on his more popular level books. This is a great collection, highly recommended!





The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life Vincent Bacote (Zondervan) $11.99 I love this little volume in the “Ordinary Theology” series. He doesn’t cover Romans 13 much, but offers keen insights on public life, pluralism, and various postures and strategies for being “in but not of” the world as we take up our duties as Christian in society and as faithful citizens.




One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics Bruce Ashford & Chris Pappalardo (B&H) $14.99 This is a small hardback written by two very sharp Southern Baptist thinkers who have studied Kuyper, pluralism, law, and understand much about the framework of a Christian view of political order. There’s a lot of meat here for a small book.




The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction James Skillen (Baker Academic) $24.00 My goodness, this overview of how the best thinkers of the Christian West have thought about politics and the state, down through the ages, is brilliant. He is helpful in showing how many have a core conviction about the state being God’s good gift, but many (perhaps influenced by some sacred/secular dualism or some private/public or church/world dichotomy) fail to develop a robust, Biblically-rooted political theory.This is a must for anyone serious about having an informed Christian perspective.


A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice James Skillen (The Center for Public Justice) $12.95   We are so glad to still have a few of these books around, first published by the Christian Reformed Church, solid Biblical reflections and a few nice case studies of people of faith serving as public officials. These Scriptural reflections emerged from Skillen’s work as founder of the Center for Public Justice, a non-partisan think tank for the development of Christian citizenship in light of a Biblical vision of society and the important but limited calling of the state.



Five Views on the Church and Politics edited by Amy Black (Zondervan) $19.99 Those who follow BookNotes know that I’ve commended this recent “Counterpoints” book often. Nice to see the debate and dialogue between a Lutheran, a classic black church activist, a Roman Catholic, a Mennonite, and a Dutch Reformed Kuyper guy (our friend James K.A. Smith.)





Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP Academic) $20.00 I gave a quick shout out about this one, too, as it so helpfully allows a variety of good thinkers across a range of views to debate. There’s a Roman Catholic in the consistent, Catholic social teaching tradition, a Baptist, an Anabaptist, a principled pluralism view of the Kuyperian sort, and a social justice, mainline denominational view.




I Pledge Allegiance: A Believers Guide to Kingdom Citizenship in 21st Century America David Crump (Eerdmans) $24.99 Oh man, what a book, feisty, challenging, important. I offers a good study of the Kingdom of God, and it isn’t cheap or simple.  I noted that there is a very good chapter on civil disobedience, with this New Testament professor telling of his own involvement in non-violent direct action and the solidarity he felt with those with whom he was arrested. Ron Sider calls it “a must read.” If we are going develop a more singular devotion to Christ and His Kingdom without being co-opted by the political powers that be, we will need this sort of tough thinking. Good discussion questions, too, make this a great study resource for engaged readers.

Jesus for President Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw (Zondervan) $19.99 What a wild and creative book with edgy artwork and colorful illustrations and eccentric, youthful design. More importantly, it shows how the Bible offers an alternative story to the story of economic growth, nationalism, and military might and calls us to embody a counter-cultural community which testifies to the King who rides a donkey (not a warhorse) and whose political victory comes through a nonviolent act of suffering servanthood. Agree or not with the “anti-institutional” tone of this, it is Biblically-rich, capturing an important theme in the Bible. I wish I had said more positive about it in my little video talk as it really is worth reading.

Jesus vs. Caesar: For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God Joerge Rieger (Abingdon) $19.99 Time was running out on my little book talk so I didn’t say much about this, but it is a powerful, liberationist critique of mammon, power, and how the gospel always puts us in conflict with the principalities and powers. I tend to find great value in this strong critique but was frustrated a bit by some of his zealous overstatements. Still, it is true that many of us say we are following Jesus but we are deeply complicit in a violent Empire and we simply must learn to say no to the death-dealing ways of the status quo. Could it be that many who talk about religion in public life are actually serving a false God? Wow.

Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up Kathy Khang (IVP) $16.00 I ended my video presentation with an invitation to read this thrilling new book. I described it too quickly, but hope you picked up how thrilled we are to have such a resource and how much I’m enjoying it. I really, really hope many consider it as it is wonderfully written and offers both serious Biblical and spiritual insight, lots of anecdotes, and good strategies and guidance. Khan has worked in campus ministry with IVCF and has previously written a book for Asian American women rising to leadership positions (More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith) which of course we stock. Kathy Khang is an voice we should listen to.


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Hearts & Minds review: “Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century” by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson ON SALE

Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (Fortress Press) regularly $18.99; our sale price = $16.99

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As May moves into June every year in recent years we’ve had a string of bookselling events that are demanding but stimulating, hard but rewarding. These events remind us of the joys and sorrows, the strengths and weaknesses, the glories and the foibles, of our mainline denominational churches; last week we set up huge displays for an annual Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and then, right after that exhausting tear down and load out, we zoomed to an ecumenical conference at Lancaster Theological Seminary on “Mercersburg Theology” (a 19th century German Reformed tradition that was significant and remains a curious influence in central Pennsylvania United Church of Christ (UCC.) This year, alongside academic papers on Nevin and Schaff (the founders of the “Mercersburg school”) there were Orthodox theologians, a graduate of Westminster Seminary, a Mennonite presenter and an Episcopalian scholar who studied at the Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh and works for the Eastern Rite Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh. (Did you know there were Catholics who are Eastern?) What a world, so many scooped up in the big net of God’s saving catch.

Next we spend a whole day out of town setting up for a several day gathering of the Central Penn Conference of the UCCs. Not only do they allow me to do a workshop and highlight books from up front, they really appreciate our mix of books both evangelical and progressive, mainline and missional, contemplative and social action oriented all alongside those about spiritual renewal and congregational revitalization.

As you know, we often write here about the relationship of faith and work, careers and callings, what it means and what it looks like to think Christianly and live faithfully in every area of life in this broken, wonderful world. Although our bookstore enjoys selling books about art and science, work and play, sex and politics, food and farming, psychology and business, in fact, many of our most enjoyable off-site events are clergy retreats or events of denominations who are gathered in their judicatories for enrichment and renewal and denominational business. It’s an honor to get to serve these mainstays of our religious landscape – Lutherans and Episcopalians and United Methodists and Presbyterians and Brethren and more. Thank you one and all for allowing us into your work..

Which brings us to one of the very best books about church life I’ve read in ages, an important and interesting and insightful work by one of the most interesting, ecumenical, globally-connected persons you could ever meet, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. The book, recently published by Fortress, is called Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century.

Future Faith is both a “big picture” book from a bird’s eye view and yet also offers some very specific stuff or ordinary congregations (include well designed conversation questions for those who want to use the book in an adult ed class or book club.) Mainline folks really need it – Wes, as I’ll explain, has been deeply involved in ecumenical conversations as the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and has served a variety of global ecumenical organizations like the WCC – but those who attend evangelical community churches, missional faith communities, or mega-churches of all sorts will also benefit.

And, by the way, he is an ideal author to reach both mainline folk and evangelicals. As Wes tells so pleasantly in his fascinating memoir, Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity [Eerdmans; $24.00] he grew up on the fundamentalist side of the pew but his journey has taken him into nearly every corner of the broader Body of Christ. As he develops then in his 2013 masterpiece, From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church (Eerdmans; $20.00) the realities of the global church — well known from all the recent books with all the statistics that indicate the majority of Christians (for the first time in 2000 years) are now in the global South and Asia and not white, European or North American – are now coming through migration and immigration, to our own towns. That is, even as world Christianity’s center of gravity has moved to some point near Timbuktu, many of these brothers and sisters are, in fact, moving to North America, bringing their experiences and theological frameworks with them.

(Here in little ‘ol Dallastown in south-central PA, there is a sizable weekly worship assembly of Egyptian Coptic Christians that mean in a United Methodist sanctuary, now furnished with art and icons of Mary and John and other ancient Greek and Coptic saints. We visited with them a bit during their food festival last weekend – yum! It was so nice having these dear Egyptian Christian friends show Beth and Debi their iconostasis and worship space.)

Anyway, Wes is as fluent in Coptic or Pentecostal faith traditions as he is talking about his own background with an extended family that was friends with the Billy Graham family; he and his wife were leaders at the social justice-oriented Sojourners for a while, even as he grew to become the head of a major Reformed denomination. Through it all, as one reviewer put it, Wes’s “thoughtful, curious, and pastoral heart shines through.” We all need this book, and he’s perfectly situation to be our guide.

Listen to what Richard Rohr says about him:

Few people have the rare combination of experience, courage, research skills, and humility to say all that Wes offers us here.

I enjoyed Future Faith very much, nodding and underlining and smiling and pondering and I can’t easily tell you just how significant it is. Its format is simple, its writing clear, even though the content is complex. Every chapter presents a key topic, explained as an urgent challenge for the church that must be grappled with, and in each, Granberg-Michaelson offers expert summary of recent data, quotes just the right researchers and books, and delightfully tells stories of his own involvement in this particular issue; what he’s seen and heard or done himself. Ten challenges, one each in ten chapters. There’s a lot of content but not too much. You can do this! We can’t not do this!

Wes has met (and enjoys) people all over the world; it’s remarkable the people he knows! He has visited and consulted with nearly every kind of church (big and small, Western and international, mainline and progressive and evangelical and charismatic, mostly Protestant, but also Catholic and Orthodox. He understands much that goes on in various sorts of faith traditions and has worshipped in places as different as a small storefront to the world’s largest church pavilion – there is one in Africa that stretches more than a mile! (He jokingly says, “I’m not making this up.”) I don’t know anybody who is on a first name basis and tells about his friendships with Spirit-filled mega-church leaders in Korea and social justice activists in South Africa and First Nation theologians in the US and regularly worships in Lutheran and Reformed and even Pentecostal churches, from Grand Rapids to Zurich to Kampala to Santa Fe. Man, this dude gets around!

He sees the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the church these days and remains hopeful. The book is hard-hitting and challenging (not least for Western church folks who are the primary intended readers) but it isn’t strident or pessimistic or alarmist. Well, it’s a little alarming since, well, we simply can’t abide the status quo much longer; things must change in our faith communities. The gloomy statistics about church decline and the disastrous trajectory for many aging and dying congregations are self-evident and it is foolish to disregard the writing on the wall, as they say. Granberg-Michaelson clearly summarizes some of the most recent data on this hard stuff and it was both bracing and helpful.

Still, the book is called Future Faith and it is about, as the subtitle makes clear, how faith is being re-shaped now so it can last into the future and how it must change now in order to be sustainable and move with fidelity into this new era.

Know this: Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is not merely saying that the times they are a-changin’ and we have to change our ways to keep up. His plea is not about cultural accommodation or allowing the world to set the agenda for the church. Of course there are theological and missional principles that help us embody faith in ways that are consonant with the cultures in which we find ourselves and we certainly do attempt to stay current in plenty of ways (nobody disagrees with that in many practical matters, except maybe some ancient monks and the Amish) but this book isn’t about adapting to changing times or being relevant, let alone selling out to please people. No, no. These challenges, these chapters, which have sociological and cultural aspects and are increasingly pressing us in this 21st century culture, are, in my reading, fundamentally theological in nature. This isn’t about accommodating to the secular culture or appeasing the world but is about hearing afresh what God’s ways are really all about. These challenges aren’t mere obstacles to survival or topics about which we must relevant but they are windows to the world of faithfulness, opportunities for fidelity, issues that offer us insights into repentance and new life. Perhaps we need to hear Isaiah 43:19.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing!” God says. “Do you not perceive it?”

This book by one of God’s special servants in our generation will help us perceive it.

Future Faith is rooted in global storytelling and sociological future-casting and, yes, has plenty of insight about mega-trends and such. But what is so compelling is that as Wes introduces us to congregations and Christian leaders and renewal movements from all over the world, we hear what God is doing, we learn to be open to the winds of the Spirit blowing, we engage anew Biblical texts and theological truisms. We get in on that “new thing.” Again, the “ten challenges” are less sociological tends as they are huge theological insights.

Diana Butler Bass invites us to read this and says, wisely:

“Listen for the call of the Spirit in these stories. Be not afraid. Embrace this moment of transformation.”

Although not everyone uses the word “worldview,” Future Faith: Ten Challenges… is a foundational resource for the development of what some call a “Christian world-and-life-view.” It helps us see and lean into life in a consistently Christian way, refining and reforming our assumptions and values and expectations; stuff we take for granted. That is, Future Faith will alter your (our) world, transform your (our) social imaginaries (to use Charles Taylor’s word, as Wes does) reforming how you (we) see and make meaning of life and times around us and the meaning of discipleship and our view of the church. Beth and I have said for years that we stock here at Hearts & Minds books of cultural criticism and social analysis and have a whole section we call “Christian worldview” for this very reason – so many of our assumptions about life and times, about all things, should be refined/re-construed to be more theologically and spiritually sound. This book will help, even though it is aimed at church leaders and is mostly about congregational life. It’s fabulous, vital, profound, if foundational stuff, for sure.

Future Faith will help churches re-vamp their way of doing life together in their parishes, sure, which will help them practically be more sustainable in these changing times, but more importantly, it will help them be more Biblical. More faithful, more coherent and consistent and natural at bearing witness to the very good gospel of God’s Kingdom. Reading and discussing it will transfigure the church and transform us, hopefully making a difference in the world. This is an interesting book about global trends and includes some data and research and predictions but truly it is a book about theological principles which are too often missed and which simply must be embraced, now, before it is too late.

Sorry to get preachy about this. To be clear, Future Faith is a book about church and it is a book about life. It draws on data and trends but is rooted in Granberg-Michaelson’s considerable travels and offers stories and illustrations to help us do church better and understand God’s Kingdom more fully.

The stories he tells are often about churches from all over – some international, some from North America, many mainline, some not. Wes has this extraordinary calling and exceptional grace to be able to be in fellowship with and learn from folks from all over the theological spectrum so there are plenty of cool stories and lots of provocative insights and some jaw-dropping stories offered. Did I say this would make a great study for a small group or book club?

Here are the chapters.  I could tell you more about each (and, on occasion, a few things I wish might have been put differently or nuanced a bit.) I’d love to ask him questions, or being in a group studying this myself. There’s so much to consider and it is all so interesting and feels so very timely. Here are the Big Ten; each one is well worth reading and, yes, urgent.

  1. Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations
  2. Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future
  3. Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes
  4. Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred
  5. Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities
  6. Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism
  7. Challenge Seven: De-Americanizing the Gospel
  8. Challenge Eight: Defeating Divisive Culture Wars
  9. Challenge Nine: Belonging before Believing
  10. Challenge Ten: Saving This World

The forward to this marvelously stimulating and exceedingly important volume is by the great writer and activist Soon Chan Rah (I hope you know his books.) It’s a lovely introduction and he calls Granberg-Michaelson “a voice of integrity.” Nice, huh?

In one of the chapters Wes tells of studying – before he became a congressional aid in the mid 70’s serving with one of my life-long heroes and mentors, anti-war Republican Senator Mark Hatfield –at Princeton Theological Seminary, reading Thomas Kuhn and his seminal work Structures of Scientific Revolution (a book another one of my mentors, the colorful Dutch reformational philosopher Peter J. Steen has us his students in Western Pennsylvania reading in the mid-70s.) It warmed my heart to hear Wes explain what is meant by a paradigm shift (and how Kuhn introduced it to the popular parlance) and how certain large shifts in how we perceive thing can change everything in a culture. I mentioned that Future Faith: Ten Challenges, as much as it is a lively book for congregations needing to retool and revitalize, is also a worldview-shaping book. Whether you are a church leader or not, these ten challenges and his Biblical response to them, will rock your world(view) and will help transform you and, hopefully, your church, into the Kingdom agents God wants the church to be. These aren’t just any ten challenges, pet peeves of Granberg-Michaelson or things that come up from the sociological data. These are holy, Biblical, deeply, deeply important matters, essential to any proper formulation of the gospel, vital for us to wrap our hearts and minds around if we are going to be Biblical people.

Read these endorsements and see if they might inspire you to place an order today. I hope you do.

“This is an extraordinary book – about the hopeful future of the global church and whether the American church wants to be part of that. It demonstrates that we are at a linchpin in Christian history. After hundreds of years of the church’s domination by white Western culture, the majority of Christians are now people of color in the global south. Their theology and lived faith is fundamentally different than the narcissistic American bubble of church that is less and less relevant to its society, gets less and less interest from young people, and has less and less members in its churches. But here is the good news, the global body of Christ is the most racially and culturally diverse human community on the face of the planet. And their Christian witness could literally transform the American churches if we were to listen to them. Wes Granberg-Michaelson offers us ten fundamental ways the global church could help save the American church.”

Rev. Jim Wallis | President and Founder, Sojourners

“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. Think of these ten challenges as an invitation to a more faithful way of being church. Listen for the call of the Spirit in these stories. Be not afraid. Embrace this moment of transformation.”

Diana Butler Bass | author of Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks

“Few people have the rare combination of experience, courage, research skills, and humility to say all that Wes offers us here. He is sure to console everybody and upset a few folks too. Among many other good things, he recognizes what our individualistic society no longer does. We need to be involved in mediating, mid-level institutions, to make any sustained difference in our world. The lone person might feel enlightened and holy, but they have limited effect on those around him–until they connect. Keep us connecting, Wes!”   Richard Rohr, O.F.M. | Center for Action and Contemplation

“Future Faith is a wonderfully informative book about big changes that are happening in the life and mission of the church–with more changes to come! But this is also an inspiring and encouraging book, with wise and inspiring 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 new hope!

Richard Mouw | President Emeritus, Fuller Seminary

“The forces shaping world Christianity are multi-racial, multi-cultural and non-Western. Future Faith presents them in highly readable chapters spanning every major short and long-term trend. While the scope and content offer something for everyone, for white Christianity in the U. S., whether evangelical or (formerly) mainline, Future Faith is simply mandatory. Take, learn, discuss, and make plans.”

Larry Rasmussen | Union Theological Seminary

Future Faith is a prophetic call to U.S. churches not only to survive but also thrive, by consistently challenging the readers to look beyond their immediate horizons, geographically and ecclesiastically, to grasp racial developments through the creative and sometimes unfamiliar work of the Holy Spirit.”    Wonsuk Ma | Oral Roberts University

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Hearts & Minds BookNotes reviews: “Grateful” by Diana Butler Bass, “Reframing the Soul” by Gregory Spencer, and “Subversive Sabbath” by A.J. Swoboda ON SALE 20% OFF

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We hoped you enjoyed our previous BookNotes column, sharing a few thoughts about the vocation of being a fiction writer and naming some books not only about the significance of serious reading but sharing recommendations for good resources on writing, nurturing the imagination and such. I described plenty of titles and name-dropped a bunch of others so we hope it a post worth saving for reference or sharing with any colorful, writerly friends — or anyone who cares about words. It was, again, an illustration of our bookstore’s curated inventory in many, many areas – literature and the arts just being one of those categories – where we offer books to equip those who know that the Christian mind should be informed by what we sometimes call a Christian worldview.

If you share it with anyone, do remind them, please, that they, too, can subscribe to this “news” letter. I’m often surprised that folks don’t know there is a little subscription box at the website into which you can easily put your own email address so you can get our Hearts & Minds bookstore BookNotes coming into your inbox each week.

Speaking of name dropping and quick shout outs about good writing and captivating books: I’m just dazzled by the writing, and even more, the remarkable story that is the brand new novel by Jonathan Miles. Many loved his acerbic Dear American Airlines. I reviewed a few years ago his eccentric, profound novel about waste and excess called Want Not. His new one is called Anatomy of a Miracle published by the significant Hogarth Press (regularly $27.00, before discount.) In the first chapter a beer-guzzling war vet, made a paraplegic in Afghanistan, is mysteriously healed on a hot morning in front of the Biz-E-Bee convenience story in Biloxi, Mississippi. The book unfolds as scientists and faith healers and reality TV producers all vie to explain what happened. (It isn’t every profane, mainstream novel, by the way, that talks about evangelical faith, both black and white Southern Christians, citing everything from C.S. Lewis on miracles to more low-brow evangelical bestsellers. And that also nicely exposes the reductionism and lack of imagination among those committed to materialistic scientism. And the dangers of, well, I digress…)

When one takes the dust jacket off of Anatomy of a Miracle, it reveals a longer subtitle, pressed on to the hardback cover itself: “The True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, a Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace.” No wonder Dave Eggers loves it.

Anatomy of a Miracle has gotten rave reviews from a starred review at Kirkus to a long piece in the Times. Library Journal notes, “With sincerity and wit, Miles pens a strong, sardonic rumination on the religious boundaries of the miraculous.”

Ron Rash writes of it:

Jonathan Miles has written a novel whose comic moments alone make it a wonderful read, but Anatomy of a Miracle quickly becomes so much more: an intense, and intensely profound, meditation on how an extraordinary event might test the limits of both scientific and religious belief. What a superb writer; what a superb book.

It seems I’m always in the middle of a couple of novels and a number of memoirs. I can’t wait to tell you about some well-written memoirs that I personally enjoyed.


But our wheelhouse here is religious non-fiction and I want to revisit two very wonderful and very important books that I only announced briefly when they first came out, books that deserve a second run-through to tell you about. And I’ll add a third that is very new, offering a trio of remarkable books that I am sure will help you – no matter your age or stage of faith, no matter your season of life, whether things are going well or whether you are struggling. These are extraordinary books that seem to relate or pair well together and we recommend them to you.

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $26.99 I was enthusiastic in my description of this when the book released a month ago, and I encouraged all within ear-shot to consider it. I admitted that I wasn’t sure what I’d think about it, at first, but realized it is really good. I tried to explain it briefly, but wanted to revisit in now.

I’m a fan of the books of Diana Butler Bass, even when we might disagree or when I think she is a bit too hard on conventional theological constructs. She’s a progressive political advocate, an ecumenically-minded, liberal Episcopalian, and yet she knows much (and on a good day, can say wise and nice things about) folks who sit on various parts of the big pew that is the Body of Christ. For years and years she travelled the country documenting what sort of good ordinary, neighborhood churches were doing; she did a few academic titles of research and the wonderful Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne; $15.99) that, even though it’s been out 10 years, is still a very popular title affirming smaller churches that have embraced practices of hospitality and spiritual formation and wholistic outreach and the like. She went on to write a book about the so-called “nones” (that cite “none of the above” on religious affiliation questionnaires and what it means to find fresher expressions of faith outside the walls of the church, with the postmodern and post-Christian. (That somewhat controversial 2013 book is called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening [HarperCollins; $15.99] and it deserves a discerning, careful read as we all grapple with how to do effective and faithful ministry in our pluralistic, “spiritual but not religious” culture.)

Bass is a scholar of religion and an activist and travels in circles with beautiful writers like Barbara Brown Taylor and thoughtful colleagues in the biz like the late great Phyllis Tickle. I still smile thinking about a picture I saw of Diana with her little string of pearls and demure business suit standing all arm in arm with the tatted up Lutheran rock star Nadia Bolz-Weber and her low-slung jeans. Diana’s last book was about an eco-friendly, “this world” sort of spirituality that not only finds God’s presence in the beauties of creation and in the ordinary stuff of quotidian life, but equips us to serve the common good in our own places; it is called Grounded: Finding God in the World – a Spiritual Revolution (Harper; $14.95.) I mention all of this so you can place her within the broader landscape of religious writing these days. She is somebody you should know and somebody I really appreciate.

(A revised and expanded version of her must-read, short memoir called Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship is coming out late this summer from Church Publishing ($18.95 – you can pre-order it from us, of course.) It ruminates on the important church/state, faith/politics intersection but is rooted in her own anguished story of leaving a church the year following 9-11, precipitated by flags in the sanctuary. Her spiritually rich, humble phrase, “Broken We Kneel” was in direct contrast to the “United We Stand” motto and expresses her sadness at how some churches – even large main-denominational churches – are too often aligned with militarism and nationalism; it reminds us of the price some of us will have to pay to be faithful to Christ to resist what the hymn-writer called “our warring madness.” I am very eager to see revised edition…)

I explain all this not just to gently place Diana within the spectrum of religious writers these days and so you know a bit about her, but to again revisit what I said in the earlier, brief review of Grateful.

You see, I said I was surprised that Diana – a sophisticated sociologist of religion and a politically active citizen on the side of peace and justice, and a writer about deep and profound spiritual formation – would be drawn into what I had (however unfairly) considered a simplistic and overly sentimental practice – doing those little gratitude journals and sharing the results of your pious plan to “count your blessings.”

She herself apparently had some of these misgivings — the prologue of the book is called “Confession: No Thanks.” Ha. That’s my kind of starting point for a book like this.

Well, as I said in that first review, I was surprised (but shouldn’t have been) that in the hands of the capable thinker and good writer and public intellectual that Diana is, this study of gratitude becomes a subversive spiritual practice; a religious practice with considerable political implications. She critiques the gracelessness of the “quid pro quo” approach to a culture that turns everything into what we owe, as if everything works like the market, with transactions of debt. She does some historical and sociological studies of cultures that are based on assumptions of abundance and habits of gratitude; man, this simple virtue, when teased out and given some political teeth, as she does, can be downright revolutionary. (She has a section called “Pro Bono and the Golden Rule” about our political habitat that is amazing.)

As one pastor wrote of it, Grateful will soften the lens through which you look at the people in your life, and the whirling world around us.” Yes, it will soften the lens, and maybe soften your heart. But, again, this is not to avoid the hard work of social transformation, but is, in a way, the beginning of such dismantling and reformation. It does push us into that “whirling world around us.” It is, as Shauna Niequest put it, “a soul-shaping framework” but, as I explained in that earlier review, it is more than a pious or spiritual practice: it is an invitation to deconstruct and reframe the world and our political and economic idols. There were pages that made me think for a moment of Timothy Keller’s striking, succinct book on how a gospel-centered vision can undo the idols of our times Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (Penguin; $16.00.) There were times when it made me think of the brilliant, vital book by Brian McLaren called Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson; $14.99.)

And so, I sort of justified to our sophisticated and culturally-engaged BookNotes readers, that this book was a double-dipping or triple-dipping sort of read; that is, it invites us to a personal virtue and habit of thankfulness even as it nurtures us into a deeper spirituality, even as it reminds us of the social and civic implications of taking on attitudes and practices of authentic gratitude.

It’s a self-help book!

It’s a spirituality book!

It’s a cultural study!

It’s all three at once!

Now that I have finished Grateful: The Transforming Power of Giving Thanks I’d very much like to share just a few quick observations that might inspire you to order it from us. I’m unashamed in promoting books I think will be helpful, and this is one of them. It would make a great book for a study group – in your church or among your neighbors, churched or not. It is classy and interesting and nicely written.

First, I pitched this in that last review, as I sort of did, again, above, as a civic minded book analyzing the idols of our culture, the dysfunctions of our body politic, some of which emerge from a stinginess that might be subverted by the practices of a reframed worldview based on gratitude. This is a fair pitch, telling you that Butler Bass wrote this a during the early days of the Trump administration and was, in a way, discovering from her own deep reflection, ways to be glad about life despite the dreadful and chaotic times around us. I didn’t want anyone to think this was cheesy or a Pollyanna move, a turn inward and inspirational and away from the heavy, critical stuff Butler Bass has called us to before.

Fair enough: there’s a “common good” and cultural aspect that makes Grateful nearly subversive. She cites the astute, scholarly work of Peter Liethart Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press; $39.99) and was obviously informed by liberation theologian Mary Jo Leddy who has a book simply called Radical Gratitude (Orbis Books; $18.00.) She gets the public virtue stuff, and is always interested – like Walter Brueggemann, whose Scriptural work she always relies upon – on the social implications of Biblical faith.

But realize this, too: I was won over reading Grateful as a book of sciency/social-sciency self-help guidance advice. Yes, she draws on the best and most recent data on brain studies and such, showing how and why keeping a gratitude journal or fostering an attitude of gratitude is good for you. (Literally it’s good for your health!) And yes, she links that to a good and generous spirituality, a deeper sort of prayer and worship. But at the end of the day, as informed as this book is by good research and her wide reading, it impacted me for its common sense advise, spoken to me in a voice I was able to hear.

Maybe other “inspirational” writers have said it more simply, but I needed Bass’s wholistic and socially responsible framework to get to this good, good stuff. She is countering a narrative of negativity – which is very strong in my own life, by the way – and offering this ancient practice to offer a better way to life. It’s a simple as that – this book really explores how helpful and good and fruitful a thankful outlook can be.

Secondly – and it wouldn’t ring true as practical and good if it didn’t go here: she is very honest about how this practice of being thankful is not a justification for stuffing down our feelings of sadness, not a justification for failing to lament or grief, and not a way around the hard theological questions of theodicy and the like. It is not a call to apathy or complicity in great evil. We can be people who both celebrate and weep; we can be people who are festive with gratitude and who lament and protest.

In fact, this is where the book deeply touched me – I even had to wipe tears away a time or two, which I hadn’t anticipated. More than her other books – even her very interesting quite personal memoir, now out in an expanded and revised second edition, Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (Church Publishing; $22.95) – she tells of some of her own personal struggles. She is explicit (although not graphic) about saying she was abused as a youth. She talks about her years of having no generous thoughts whatsoever about this bad uncle, now deceased. She tells of some other hard things in her own life that any caring reader will be captivated by, and that many will surely nod in agreement with, perhaps through tears. You too, Diana? Me too, indeed.

Practicing habits of thankfulness – even the much recommended “gratitude journal” – is no panacea for discontent and doesn’t offer promises of easy healing for deep hurts. But she shows from research, from stories, and from her own life, vulnerably revealed in these pages, that it can help us move in the direction towards renewed hearts and refreshed, even joyful, lives. I have to admit I don’t read many self-help books, but this was a really, really good and life-giving resource for me and I am going to revisit it throughout the summer.

Another thing I liked about Grateful is how it is layered with a complex and multi-dimensional approach but is so clear and nicely arranged. There are four distinct parts to Grateful, each with just two chapters.

Part One and Part Two are about what she calls “Me.” The chapters in Part Two and Three explore what she calls “We.” Me and We; easy, huh? And in each of those respective parts, she looks at what she calls the emotions of gratitude and the ethics of gratitude, first for us as individuals, and then for us together, in community and in public life.

(In a way this pattern brings to mind her fascinating book called A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne; $15.99) where she documents, through different phrases of church history, how ordinary people saw their faith and how they lived their faith. That is, it explains the chief organizing images and the practices that emerged from them, the beliefs and behaviors, if you will. This swing from emotion to ethics, individually and together, in Grateful makes a similar sort of infrastructure for the book and it’s very, very useful.)

Once again; Part One is called “Me: Emotions” and Part Two is “Me: Ethics.” Part Three is “We: Emotions” and Part Four is “We: Ethics.” It makes a lot of sense, yes?

Yep, there’s some hard and raw stuff in here, personal stuff that Diana shares about her own pains and struggles and wounded relationships and there are things in here that are utterly delightful. She is honest about the complexities of all this (our own woundedness and hardness of heart and our culture’s structures and dispositions to resist grace and gratitude.) But there’s really fun stuff, too – including a remarkable bit about play and creativity, even a bit about baseball. I was moved – again, almost to tears — in a chapter about the emotion of gratitude (in the “we” section) that showed how, when shared, can become the foundation for cultures of festivity. Joy and celebration are part of the ethos of some work cultures, some churches, some institutions, and, as she tells, even of certain neighborhoods and parts of cities. What fun!

Yes, what fun to read and how good it is to reflect on how this seemingly simple reframing of heart matters become – through intentional practice, of course – a way to be grateful together, to increase communal celebration, which spills out into circles of gratitude (as she calls one of her chapters) and festivity and into, as another chapter simply puts it, “the grateful society.”

Like King’s famous “beloved community” we aren’t there yet. Which is why we need sustained study and encouragement and wisdom from guides who can help us ponder and embrace giving thanks and being generous, realizing their communal nature and public consequences.

This is “a call to the grateful way” and it is good rich, stuff. She reminds us how it works individually – both in our emotional lives (gratitude is, after all, as she carefully explains, an emotion) – and in our broader communities and cultures. As “Science Mike” McHargue says, “Bass is a calming voice in raging cultural seas. Grateful is challenging and refreshing and speaks to the core of so much modern misery.”

Can a book pushing back against modern misery be fun to read? Can a self help book be deeply spiritual? Can a book inviting an optimistic sort of good cheer, learned by nurturing gratitude be profound in a hurting, chaotic culture? Yes, yes, and, again, yes. This intelligent, nicely written book is all that and more. Grateful: The Transforming Power of Giving Thanks is worth buying, worth studying, and, at the end, worth being grateful for.

Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith Gregory Spencer (Leafwood) $15.99 Oh my, what a handsome, nice paperback, a perfect book to read alongside Grateful by Diana Butler Bass. In fact, Spencer has a very, very good chapter on gratitude in Reframing the Soul and it helped me as I was reading Butler Bass. I’m not stretching it to say these two really could be read in tandem.

For what it may be worth, I’ve known of Gregory Spencer for years. Although it has been out of print for more than a decade, we used to push his A Heart for Truth to any college student who would listen. (Now that honor goes to the Brazos Press book Learning for the Love of God by Opitz & Melleby, of course.) In more recent years, Spencer wrote a lovely book called Awakening the Quieter Virtues (IVP; $16.00) which looks at character attributes such as innocence and reverence, discernment and gratitude, modesty and authenticity. He wants us to grapple with thoughtful stuff, but is the sort of spiritual guide who walks readers into very, very real-world, stuff. It is a book about spiritual formation but very practical.

I wasn’t sure, I’ll admit, what Reframing the Soul would be like, but I knew I liked and trusted Spencer as a solid, helpful thinker and a good, clear writer. When we first heard of it we liked the subtitle “how words transform our faith.” I was maybe thinking it might be about books or literature.

When it arrived I scanned it quickly, and was struck by its layout and design and the very good poem that concludes every chapter. I looked through the discussion questions and realized it really was a self-help kind of book, about coming to terms with how we think about our life, based on the words and stories we tell ourselves.

Ah, yes…. now that I’ve read it I can say that it is, indeed, a book about basic spiritual growth with this nearly psychological foundation. Spencer sounds like a counselor but actually taught communications studies at Westmont (yes, the irony is thick, here, as Diana Butler Bass used to teach there and she writes about it in her book.) As a communications guy, Spencer is a great writer – he makes his points, tells stories, draws on great quotes from both old classics and contemporary writers, Christian and otherwise. He’s a born storyteller and some of his illustrations are just captivating.

But besides communications – and this book is rooted in pretty serious study and awareness of how linguistics and story works – I gather that Mr. Spencer is a fine counselor, a mentor, a caring guide, maybe even a pastoral voice for many of his students and associates. He’s no saint – he makes that pretty clear, too, in his honest stories about his own foibles and mishaps – but he has this knack for pushing people to ask deeper questions about what is really going on under the surface of one’s life, fostering great self-awareness. (Remember, he wrote that book about the “quieter virtues” which includes discernment and authentic, rejecting hubris, being aware; he has this kind and gracious way – according to the stories he tells to illustrate his points – of probing and inviting and helping folks see things afresh.) This is a great gift and I don’t know of any book quite like this.

Seeing things afresh is what this book is about. He is convinced that we basically tell ourselves the same story, the same way, over and over, and it becomes true for us, impacting how we see not only the incident or persons involved, but how it shapes and forms our own behaviors. This is commonly known – think of the TV shows or movies where a person is told over and over she is dumb or ugly or lazy or won’t amount to anything and the hero or heroine has to overcome great obstacles just to prove to their parents or nemesis that they are somebody, they do have talents or capacities. That we are wounded, often for life, by lies people say about us, or lies we believe about ourselves, is nearly self evident.

Alas, Reframing the Soul goes a bit deeper, even though the prose is simple and the stories are often hilarious or poignant. Spencer has written a book that I nearly want to call – for those few for whom this would be an asset – a worldview book. He shows how our lives are construed by the deepest ideas we hold and the social imaginaries that developl how we see and lean into life. He’s read and cites James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love so there’s no reductionism about mere, abstract intellectual ideas being the only things that shapes us; he is fluent in conversation about our deepest desires and the storied nature of our lives.

So, yep, Spencer does all this is a really fine and thoughtful way, studying and exploring (and did I say, telling lots of stories!) the way words matter in our lives, the way the plot of our lives unfolds, the way our attitudes and practices – I’d say our very worldview – are dynamic and changing in part shaped by the words spoken to, about, or over us, Spencer gives us handles for re-thinking, re-construing, re-framing our lives.

His framework (excuse the pun) of frameworks and re-framing, is, actually, a very, very helpful way to get at this who phenomenon. In our last BookNotes post I swiped a phrase from Jamie Smith about how we are often “conscripted into a story” or some trajectory towards what we’ve come to imagine as the good life. We are conscripted by stories and imaginative frameworks, worldviews and songs, Smith and Spencer both know this. But Spencer, especially – he’s a communications specialist, after all – realizes that much of this comes from the words we use to tell the particular stories of our lives.

Why do we use this word to tell the story that way? What baggage, about shame or guilt or blame or failure or debt does that phrase bring with it? What if we told a story using other words? What if we reframed an incident with other language? That is what Reframing the Soul: How Word’s Transform Our Faith does for us.

And, again, (and not just because of the good chapter on gratitude) this is a very useful tool to read along with Diana Butler Bass; Spencer shows how practices and new habits (as she commends) happen best when they are first construed in new language. (She knows this, of course; it is in a way the chief premise of her book, shifting from debt to grace, complaining to thankfulness, and so forth.)

On the back cover of Reframing the Soul we get a glimpse of what Spencer is up to here, 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.

Three features at the end are brilliant. One is about “finished and unfinished frames.” This chapter starts with a long and sordid tale from his own broken family. A final appendix is called “Reframing with the Saints” and draws on a variety of older saints to help us as we re-orient our own worldviews and life narratives. The final part is a long and excellent study guide and discussion resource that would make this an ideal study for a group.

Listen to this lovely little quip by the always worth hearing John Ortberg:

Reality, a friend of mine once said, is what you run into when you’re wrong. Reframing the Soul is a wonderful guide to navigating reality with grace and truth. It is honest, hopeful, literate, and faith-filled. His framework for daily life is brilliant!

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World A. J. Swoboda (Brazos Press) $19.99 This is another book that I wrote about in some detail – but not enough – when it first came out. We raved about it, assured you that it seemed to be one of the very best books done on this topic. We celebrated Swoboda as a great writer – we so loved his last few books such as A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief (Baker Books; $15.00) and Experience or The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith (Baker Books; $16.00) not to mention an academic text he edited on Pentecostals involved in peace-making, social justice, and creation care entitled Blood Cries Out: Pentecostals Ecology, and the Groan of Creation (Pickwick Publications; $31.00.)

And so, we love A.J. We appreciate his great writing, how he draws on so many great sources – in this book, from Eugene Peterson to Flannery O’Connor, from Marva Dawn to Kenneth Bailey, from Nancy Sleeth to Barbara Brown Taylor, from Charles Dickens to Wendell Berry, from poets to prophets, scientists, and more.

There are so many good books on the Sabbath and Sabbath keeping that we stock and love. (I do think Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly remains a must-read and most everyone who reads in this topic knows that the dense old Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s Sabbath is a true classic. I’m very fond of the upbeat and readable The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath by Mark Buchannan and Swoboda himself draws on his mentors Matthew and Nancy Sleeth and Matthew’s 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life (with a nice foreword by Eugene Peterson) not to mention the amazingly broad and visionary Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba. Swoboda has that same sort of vision of “rest and delight” and writes with joy and vigor.) As you can see, there are a lot of good books on this, all worth spending time with – perhaps as a Sabbath practice. But why one more?

I cannot say that I’ve enjoyed one as much as I have this one, nor have I learned as much. I’ve read seven or eight books on this topic, at least, and Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest… is among the best. It’s a big, thoughtful, wonderful book and I really, really, want to commend it to you.

In fact, listen to this:

If I were permitted to recommend only one book on Sabbath-keeping, Subversive Sabbath would be it. No one can read this book and ever again associate Sabbath-keeping with ‘blue laws’ or legalism or boredom. Subversive Sabbath dares one to do life as God intended from the beginning.
— Shirley A. Mullen, president, Houghton College

And, while we’re at it, consider these robust recommendations:

“Do you ever just want to pull the plug on your schedule? Subversive Sabbath shows you why you should and how you can; it will fundamentally change your life. It is a total reconstruction of America’s frenzied, frenetic lifestyle, offering the ultimate regenerative alternative.”
— Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm; editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer

” Subversive Sabbath is incredibly well written, accessible, and deeply encouraging. A. J. Swoboda avoids oversimplification and presents a deep, rich, and energetic argument on what it means to be fully human through an obedient pursuit of rest and well-being.”
— Ken Wytsma, founder, The Justice Conference; pastor, Antioch Church, Bend, Oregon; author of The Myth of Equality

“Our smartwatch-driven age can measure every heartbeat, every step, even the quality of our sleep, but it cannot measure the health of our souls. Our limitless freedom has paradoxically imprisoned us in an achievement culture of constant measurement. Escape from the exhaustion of endless opportunity, embrace the singular God behind the singular Sabbath day of rest. Stop, breathe, read this profoundly helpful book, and be remade.”
— Mark Sayers, senior pastor, Red Church, Melbourne, Australia; author of Disappearing Church and Strange Days

“Few things are as subversive to the hurry addiction of the modern world than the practice of Sabbath. And few things are as life-or-death important. A. J. has written his best book yet. His keen mind, quick wit, and deep soulfulness come through beautifully, page by captivating page. But more than anything, this is a book that is lived. My new go-to book on the Sabbath.”
— John Mark Comer, pastor of teaching and vision, Bridgetown Church; author of God Has a Name

Well, what can I say after those stellar endorsements? These are all from people I really like, folks I trust as thinkers and as writers, so wanted to share them with you.

I, too, would add my rave review to this as I’ve so appreciated Swoboda’s style and grace, his many stories and illustrations. He reminds us that Sabbath is a rest for the mind. He talks about the “psychic numbing” that we do.He talks about our workaholism, of course. He talks about making pancakes with his kids – always pancakes on Sabbath! – and got me choked up with a Rabbinic saying that accompanied the story. One chapter starts with a line about the beauty of cows. His stories about church life and doing ministry and how Sabbath keeping habits can shape congregational cultures are very helpful. His Biblical study draws Sabbath principles from all over the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and anyone who cares about the formative influence of the Bible will appreciate his handling of the Word. He has a chapter called “Sabbath and Critters” which you don’t see in every Sabbath book…

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, in a way, is also a very good book to read with or after Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful: The Transforming Power of Giving Thanks. I hope you can see that these explore somewhat similar territory, even if Swoboda is a Bible teacher and pastor while Diana is sociologist and researcher; her topic is more directly psychological and could be read by nearly anyone – the emotions and ethics of gratitude are pretty universal – while his seems more directly written for those who are on the way of Jesus and seeking a faithful sort of discipleship. That is, one of the aspects of a Sabbath-keeping life and of the grateful life is a core trust in the abundance, grace, and trustworthiness of God and the sturdiness of God’s creation. That both Butler Bass and Swoboda draw upon the generative insights from Walter Brueggemann is no surprise. That they both invite us to a grounded, sense-of-place with interior lives that bear fruit for the common good is, again, no surprise. These things over-lap and relate nicely.

Swoboda’s book is arranged in four parts: Sabbath for Us, Sabbath for Others, Sabbath for Creation and Sabbath for Worship. There are three good (and well footnoted) chapters under each section, making this a 12-chapter work.

I could go on and on about passages I enjoyed and insights I gleaned and stuff I pondered (and a number of things that pushed me to maybe repent of some of my own drivenness and disobedience to these things) but I think I will just mention a few final notes. It will give you a good overview of how much is covered and why this is an important book for you even if you’ve already studied another good book on this topic.

In the “Sabbath for Us” section he has a long section about time; in these 24/7 (or, now is it 25/8 as we try to extend the very limits of creation?) this is crucial stuff. I got hooked thinking about all this from the luminous, stunning pages of the gentle Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy C. Bass (Jossey Bass; $14.95) and of course Swoboda cites it.

There is a good chapter on work – it is especially good for those of us who don’t work with our hands, much, or are stuck in offices and what some call “knowledge work.” There is a very important chapter on health.

In the “Sabbath for Others” unit he talks about relationships (wow!) and has middle chapter called “Sabbath, Economy, and Technology.” There is an important (and helpful contribution to the current literature on Sabbath called “Sabbath and the Marginalized.”

We should all take in the “Sabbath for Creation” section since, well, we all live on land, and eat, and are involved, in on way or another, with animals. This is not just for environmental activists (although, given the cut-backs in environmental regulations and the current administrations compromised role in this field, we all need to step up our stewardship game these days!) There’s a chapter on the creation, one on the land, and one, as I mentioned, on critters.

The final three chapters are under the rubric of worship – although that is fairly loosely used. These are rich and potent chapter on “Sabbath and Witness” “Sabbath and Worship” and “Sabbath and Discipleship.” Oh my, this is transformational stuff, really, really good.

We can rejoice and thank Brazos for doing this book and for having great reflection questions at the end of each chapter. It’s a gloriously written and very, very informative title, and may be just a bit much for some small groups. (It’s over 200 pages.) But the 12-chapter format isn’t toooo long, I don’t think, and it is stimulating and will lead to spirited conversations, for sure.

So, there you go, friends: a book on gratitude, a book on reframing our stories by using better words, and a book about the many aspects of a Sabbath way of life. All three are delightful subversive, each in their own ways. Buy some books, but hold on to your hats.



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Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare,

life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

                Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This is just one of many quotes about reading or writing I sometimes share when doing talks about what books can do, why we should read (fiction or non-fiction) and the benefits of the reading life.

It was with great anticipation and a little trepidation that I prepared to (remotely) address a San Francisco Bay Area writers group—fiction writers, no less! I’ve addressed all manner of adults and children on the role of reading, but only a few times have I addressed actual writers about their own creative calling and craft. (I still recall fondly when a group of mostly seasoned journalists humored me as I tried to inspire them in their own vocation as reporters and writers.)

I’ve done some classes using teleconference technologies before but I was still nervous about whether Zoom would work (it didn’t; I won’t bore you with the glitchy details) but being with a chapter of the Association of Christian Fiction Writers was an honor and a thrill; like I said, though, I was nervous. It’s one thing to talk to book lovers about reading, but what did I have to say to real authors working on their novels? Some had even published books already, most were working on manuscripts. Although we stock a lot of so-called “Christian fiction” I have to admit I don’t read many of the stories from these evangelical publishers (and, I’ll admit it, I judge way too many of those books by their formulaic covers.) I’m not much of a fan of speculative fiction or fantasy, let alone science fiction, so, well, I was hoping I could offer some words of wisdom to help them reflect on their calling as writers.

Or at least I could remind them that we booksellers (and the many book buyers that count on us) appreciate their hard work. It’s a self-evident quip, but needs said: without writers writing books this whole publishing industry wouldn’t exist.  We sell ‘em, but they write ‘em. Thanks be to God.

When in doubt, I often start with a passionate summary of the doctrine of vocation, talk about Os Guinness’s stellar and exquisite work The Call: Finding and Fulfilling Your Life’s Greatest Purpose (Word; $17.99) and remind folks that their work or avocations are as important to the Kingdom of God as is the work of ministers or missionaries. Explaining how the early church was wrong to so easily buy into Plato’s lie that life is made up of what some call “sacred and secular” spheres is a good way to start almost any talk on any topic. God cares, the world matters, we are called to reflect on the principles and practices that cohere with the actual way God’s good world really works, illumined by the light of Biblical truth. Citing that explosive verse about “taking every theory captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) it’s helpful, I think, to remind folks to think well about what they do.

I wish the teleconferencing technology had worked better because some good back-and-forth dialogue about this would have been interesting.  I invited them – as I have when I’ve addressed artists, before – to consider that one of the big topics that writers must grapple with is what they believe about the creative process itself. Too often, I think, Christian folks have too easily adopted perspectives about how imagination and creativity works without adequate philosophical reflection on the assumptions and consequences of those particular theories of creativity.

Don’t get me wrong: when a writer is revising a plot, or revising a sentence, she isn’t at that point pondering the deepest a priori attitudes or ethos of the MFA program she was a part of, or what is acceptable from a Biblical viewpoint about the proposals in, say, Julia Cameron’s beloved The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Greater Creativity (Tarcher; $17.00) or the philosophical-linguistic assumptions in Strunk and White. But at some point, we must. I think it hinders our Christian integrity and diminishes our gifts offered to the world when we don’t think Christianly about our work and think we can get by through “winging it” or adopting as gospel any popular author or theory that’s in vogue. (Just for an easy example, I have recommended more than a few times the truly fascinating book by the charming Elizabeth Gilbert called Big Magic Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead; $16.00) but the way she suggests that “the muse” is maybe an actual being is, well, wacky at best. What should we think about this? Ought we to fall prey to talk about muses and whatnot? Where is that coming from?)

I suggested that when a lawyer is arguing her case, she isn’t at that moment thinking about the details of her jurisprudences classes as an L1 law student. (Hat tip to you, Kelley Way, lawyer and writer!) Counselors, scientists, businesspeople, parents, teachers, and nurses, are significantly influenced by the deep ideas they’ve come to adopt (from study in the classroom or from their mentors or from popular culture) and don’t always think about those theories in the moment of their daily practice; they are subconsciously assumed, lived out, like it or not. But at some point they should buy some Christian books and be intentional about thinking through just what they believe about the foundational matters in their field.

If this task or way of thinking about the intellectual implications of passages like 2 Corinthians 11:5 or Romans 12:1-2, I highly recommend at least reading up a bit on the Christian mind. My favorite brief book on this is by the wonderful Greg Jao and is called Your Mind’s Mission (IVP; $7.00.)  I very briefly describe in an older BookNotes ten others in a list that’s a little dated but may proof helpful. We still stock these, and more, so check it out here.

For writers, this includes thinking about art and creativity (long before you get to the questions of marketing and promotion, which carry their own set of intellectual and practical, spiritual challenges.) Which leads, sooner rather than later, to the thorny topic of aesthetics.

Whether one is writing a romance or a YA graphic novel, working in speculative fiction, or researching a historical piece, writing a bone fide horror novel or a cozy mystery, one’s work needs to be grounded in some basic assumptions about how God’s world of writing works, and what the creative process is all about. And, by the way: I don’t know what “literary fiction” is and reject any notion that only those writing high-brow, sophisticated novels have to consider aesthetic theory and deeper questions about the nature of creativity and story.


Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling Andy Crouch (IVP) $22.00  Time and again I insist this is not a book for artists but for all of us, for any who long to be more meaningful engaged in the human task of culture-making, of stewarding the gifts God has given us for the common good.  We are all called to make something out of what we are given and this image-of-God work of cultivating God’s garden is intrinsically human. So, yes, it is for butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, for parents and politicians and practitioners of all sorts.  But, let’s face it: who needs to have language to express this stuff, this good, creative calling, this longing to leave a legacy of something real, than those called to be artists, writers, poets, novelists? I very, very highly recommend this one-of-a-kind book.

Rainbows for the Fallen World Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press) $30.00  In my presentation I explained a bit about this important book, on of my own personal all time favorites, especially the early chapters about how Seerveld reminds us, helps disclose for us, the aesthetic dimension to all of life. Here he does his most famous and often-discussed good work on “allusion” and a serious chapter or two on the philosophy of aesthetics. I’d read anything Cal writes – and what an energetic writer he is! For those who want a deep dive into his work, see any of these in this six-volume set which I describe HERE.


A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture David A. Covington (Zondervan) $24.99  This is very new and I applaud Zondervan for releasing a book that, sadly, may not seem important to those who read theology. I’m part way through it want to commend the author for doing this kind of good work. It looks at how aesthetics can influence our understanding of doctrine as well as our engagement with the culture and the creative process.  Good, good stuff. He quotes Seerveld, too.

Noel Paul Stookey (yes of PPM fame) notes that this book reminds us of how aesthetics is related to adoration and love. And how “this book is a heartfelt reminder to seek out the redemptive quality in everything we do.”

My friend Bill Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary, who is an excellent guide to this stuff in his own books, says:

David Covington has given us a remarkable window onto the Bible’s take on aesthetics. He gently but firmly deflates adages such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and other subjective judgments, but without demeaning the spirit from which they are generated. A thoroughly elevating read.

 It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99

It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99

It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99

All three of these excellent collection of thoughtful essays are simple stellar and I recommend all three, truly. Each includes fabulous essays by dozens of thoughtful theorists and artists, practitioners and patrons, writers and thinkers, makers and performers. We are so proud to stock these (and everything else this classy niche publisher does.)  The first is obviously most foundational; the second is for anyone who enjoys music (or is involved in music-making) which the new, third one is for dancers, actors, film-makers, and others in the active, performing arts. See our previous BookNotes observations about these three here, here, or here, and order from us today at our 20% off offer. Check out the Square Halo Books website, here.

Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity Michael Card (IVP) $17.00 There are heavier books out there, but I really, really like Mike’s mature reflections and balanced call to embrace some degree of creativity in our daily lives. This is helpful for artists and writers, but also good for anyone. We recommend it often.

I love what Michael writes about the famous incident with Jesus writing in the dirt: “It was art and it was theater at the same time, but it was more. It was what he did not say that spoke most powerfully to the mob that morning.”

Interestingly, but well deservedly, Scrdibbling in the Sand was voted 2002 Publisher’s Weekly Best Adult Religion Book of the Year!

Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts Steve Turner (IVP) $16.00  This is another standard go-to book for us that is basic, interesting, engaging for anyone whether filmmaker, musician, storyteller, or writer – or anyone who just enjoys the popular arts. I so appreciate this classic book, which was nicely expanded a few years back and often recommend it (to artists and others; maybe especially others.) Steve Turner is a respected rock critic (and has written widely on, among other musical icons, The Beatles.) This is a very good book, highly recommended.



Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts Jerram Barrs (Crossway) $18.99  When my friend Denis Haack says something good about a book, when jazzman and seminary prof William Edgar has a blurb (saying it is “enriching both professional artists and anyone else sensitive to the power of art for all of life”) and when Nicholas Perrin (once a teaching assistant to NT Wright) says that Barr “clears away the clutter of much-touted arguments and sets forth a clear framework for any Christian thinking Biblically about the arts” you know you’ve got my attention.

Wow — check out what Pastor Tim Keller says:

The most accessible, readable, and yet theologically robust work on Christianity and the arts that you will be able to find.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Madeline L’Engle (Convergence) $15.00  This is a must-read for any serious writer. Her take on the creative process and the spirituality of the arts is wise and a tad unusual – she draws on desert fathers and medieval artists and more. It is not simplistic. Of course, her main art work is as an author, so it’s very good for writers. There is, in this recently re-issued paperback, a lovely preface by the YA novelist Sara Zarr.




Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith Luci Shaw (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 Luci Shaw (or was good friends and prayer partner with Madeline L’Engle, by the way) is a very esteemed Christian literary figure, a poet and nonfiction essayist, spiritual leader and storyteller. (She has a new book of poetry coming from Paraclete Press this fall!!) This is a book that should be on every aspiring writers shelves, maybe on your nightstand. She knows good writing – from Emily Dickinson to Annie Dillard – she reflects on the meaning of symbolism and metaphor and shows how good art (mostly good writing since that is her particular specialty) can help humans flourish and even experience God. Very nicely done and very inspiring.

Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture Makoto Fujimura (NavPress) $24.99 We stock and highly recommend all of Mako’s extraordinary books; there is a reason he is so well respected in so many quarters.  As an abstract painter living near Ground Zero during 9-11 his ruminations on the arts have a poignant, socially responsible tone. These are beautiful essays, cries from the heart of a lively, thoughtful, Christian artist. I hope you know his many other books, from the broad and thoughtful Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life to Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering the specific, award-winning study of the classic Japanese novel, Silence, which raises huge questions about how art can be helpful as we live in a hurting world. We talked about this matter somewhat in the writers group – that good books can help heal the world. Silence and Beauty shows us how it’s done. But I think his Refractions is a must-have book.

Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith and Mystery Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books) $22.99  I think any literary person should know the exquisite and thoughtful prose of this well-informed Catholic leader in the movement – the space, as we say these days – relating faith and the arts. You should know the journal he founded, Image, his collection of essays entitled The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery, and a major work entitled Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. (You should know his wife, Suzanne’s, two excellent novels, too, The Confessions of X, about Augustine’s early lover and Unveiling, a revised, newly reissued novel about an art restoration project. But I digress.) This recent Square Halo edition of Intruding Upon the Timeless a collection of short, luminous, essays by Wolfe from Image was expanded last year and reissued with new artwork within, including some by woodcut artist Barry Moser. Very, very nicely done, and good reading for anyone in the arts, and certainly faith-based writers.

Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind Gene Veith & Matthew Ristuccia (Crossway) $16.99 It is surprising that there are few books that are directly exploring the role of imagination in faith. There are a few that are a bit eccentric or obtuse, but this is clear and insightful. It is a good starting point towards a coherently Christian approach and has endorsements on the back by David Kim (of the Redeemer Presbyterian Center for Faith and Work), Jeremy Begbie (who, after Seerveld, may be one of the most important aesthetic theorists writing today) and the esteemed emeritus Wheaton literature prof Leland Ryken.


The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing Leland Ryken (Shaw Books) $24.99 Some say that this is an ideal book to use in a class on writing or literature, an anthology that brings together some of the very best stuff written on the integration of faith and literature. It is a bit dated and tends towards the classical, but for what it does it is an unparalleled anthology. In it you’ll find excerpts from C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Conner, Dorothy Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and more… a good exercise for any writer is to dip into good writing and it is always worthwhile for anyone trying to develop their own opinions about creativity and aesthetics and the writing process to hear what great minds have said about this daunting topic. What a joy to have this thick paperback of 480 pages!


Title Pending: What I Think About When I Make Stuff Justin McRoberts (CreateSpace) $10.99  I told the San Fran Bay Area ACFW group that they should know Justin, a singer-songwriter, workshop leader, podcast genius, author and all-around cultural creative who lives out there. Title Pending  is a little known self-published work by a guy I really, really respect which is full of advice and ideas about being creative. Congrats to Justin and his friend Scott “The Painter” Erickson who just signed a deal with Waterbrook.  Yah. What do you think about when you make stuff? Maybe Justin’s insights can help you answer that, or give a better answer. Cool.


Holy Curiosity: Cultivating the Creative Spirit in Everyday Life Amy Hollingsworth (Cascade) $18.00  Perhaps you know Hollingsworth for her excellent book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers or the riveting memoir she co-wrote with her son, Runaway Radical. She’s a fine writer and her craft is on full display here as she weaves her own story about discovering something essential about the creative process. As one writer said in a back cover review “Amy draws thread from spools ancient and modern, mythic and scientific, experiential and theoretical and weaves a seamless story…”


Finding Divine Inspiration: Working with the Holy Spirit in Your Creativity Scott McElroy (Destiny Image) $15.99  Scott has made a unique contribution in this field of “creativity studies” by asking, very responsibly, I might add, what active role the Holy Spirit has in our creative efforts. I like Scott a lot and many will appreciate this simple guide to discerning God’s guidance in our own efforts at the creative process. By the way, McElroy has since gone on to write a very useful book for those involved in arts ministries in the local church called Creative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in Your Congregation (IVP; $20.00.)


The Creative Life: A Workbook for Unearthing the Christian Imagination Alice Bass (InterVarsity Press) $19.00 You know we are fond of IVP and respect and trust their instincts about books.  This was a workbook full of thoughtful exercises and things to generate greater creativity for anyone hope to unearth their own gift and capacities. I suspect this could be described as an evangelical version of something like The Artist’s Way. 

Bass has worked in theatre and here is what Karen, Lund, another actor has written about The Creative Life workbook:

The Creative Life is a straightforward, practical approach to reclaiming your creativity for the Creator. Obviously inspired and delightfully inspirational, Alice Bass speaks eloquently to the artist in each of us that has been silenced by fear but seeks to re-emerge in truth and light. This workbook is a must for the Christian artist who seeks to reconnect or connect for the first time his gifts with the Giver.”

The Creative Call: An Artist’s Response to the Way of the Spirit Janice Elsheimer (Shaw/Waterbrook) $16.99 This is a book loaded with ideas, experiments, exercises and more. Designed for anyone wanting to enhance creativity, even if it is backyard gardening, a hobby of photography or digging out an old instrument from your youth. It does seems perhaps very suited for writers; for a while, this publisher (founded by Harold and Luci Shaw) had a few books in a series they called “The Writer’s Palette.) Nice, huh?



Soul Fire: Accessing Your Creativity Thomas Ryan, CSP (Skylight Paths) $16.99 This is deeply spiritual in an ecumenical, even interfaith way; the author is a Catholic mystic and yoga instructor and draws here on some of the usual suspects on tapping your inner spirit and creative impulses – Julia Cameron, Dan Wakefield, Marianne Williamson, Jung, even. He has some lovely, evocative poetry, lots of creativity exercises, sidebars with practical advise. This was released before the popularity of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward but Ryan does deal (as does Rohr) with some “second half of life” stuff and those that appreciate Rohr will like this.


Different Drummer: Bold Thinking for the Rebellious Creative Erik Lokkesmoe (Elevant) $13.99 This small book is expertly designed with short and pithy chapters, super-graphics, cool design with touches of red ink and black graphics, with no-holds-barred bold reminders to be a “difference maker.” Lokkesmoe – who left a job in the policy world of Washington DC to be a culturally creative organizer — shows how to be encouraged, how to let go of fear and move forward into your essential role in God’s missional plan. This is very, very practical but yet expressing a youthful sort of idealistic energy. First it’ll rock your world and then you’ll really dig it.


Create vs Copy: Embrace Change, Ignite Creativity, Break Through with Imagination Ken Wytsma (Moody Press) $14.99  I hope you recall that we’ve touted Wytsma before – we highly recommend his book that came out of his spectacular work founding the annual “Justice Conference” called Pursuing Justice as well as his excellent book on racism and white privilege, The Myth of Equality. But this hand-sized hardback is not only pretty cool to see but is laden with great insight about how to cultivate a creative mindset in life and leadership, using greater imagination, learning how to unleash some of our in-born creativity. The blurb on the front by Bob Goff is pretty nifty, too.

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World Lewis Hyde (Vintage) $16.95 This is less a workshop on being creative or an inspirational guide to finding your flow but a very impressive, almost scholarly history of how creators make a difference. Margaret Atwood says it is “the best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. A masterpiece.” Jonathan Lethem said it is an “epiphany, in sculpted prose.” It is a manifesto of sorts, a call for a culture not to be so governed by money and commodity but to be reformed by the audacious generosity of artists who share their work as gift. Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn did a neat song on his 1988 Big Circumstance album inspired by this book called “The Gift.” Enjoy that here. 

Everyone’s a Genius: Unleashing Creativity for the Sake of the World Alan Briggs (Thomas Nelson) $16.99  Briggs has a great book about staying put and caring about your own neighborhood called Staying is the New Going and the introduction (by Michael Frost) about how literature can evoke a sense of place is worth the price of the book. Many have heard me rave about this author. This is a fairly new one, absolutely fascinating, about team-building and brain studies and leadership and art and culture and, well making stuff. Very nice; a fabulous way to think about creativity and, curiously, missional church leadership, too. Give it a try – you’ll be captivated.


Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So the World Listens Bobette Buster (Chronicle Books) $16.95 Buster is an extraordinary woman who teaches storytelling at Northeastern University and has done presentations with all the great film studios (Pixar, Sony, Disney.) While this book seems to be more about engaging an audience with live storytelling – if you want to do a TED talk, you’ve got to get this – it is rich for anyone doing any sort of storytelling, writing, marketing, even. It’s a very hip little volume by an amazingly important person of faith. Enjoy.



Well. I had seven big points that I preached about in the Christian Fiction Writers workshop, seven things books can do as we read them and how authors should be thinking about how the results or fruit of their writerly art. Of course they are not to pander or write directly in order to achieve these goals (that’s not the point) but it might be that knowing how character or plot development matters to readers, and some of what good art can evoke, will at least keep them moving in the right direct as they dream up worlds, create characters, allow the plots to meander and grow.

Those seven points could all be sermons in themselves, but at the very least I hope the participants recall that I insisted that readers respond to novels – and films and plays and TV shows and ballads – because they help us narrate our own lives; we connect the dots of the narrative and make sense of our own storied lives. We are wired for words because we are made in the image of a speaking God – let there be! – and our human love-language is story because we are made in the image of a storytelling God. (The Bible is a big, complicated, story, after all, surely an unfolding drama.

The narrative nature of Scripture is, happily, getting a lot of attention these days. There are wonderful resources that help us explore this such as The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen (Baker Academic; $24.99) which is very good, even for seasoned Bible readers. Since I was talking to writers, though, I slipped into an advertisement for Frederick Buechner’s fascinating Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (HarperOne; $17.99.) There is much more that should be said about God as Word and the Bible as Story. It’s important for all of us but should be great encouragement to those honing their writing chops, inventing fantastical worlds, spinning years and writing mysteries. Stories are close to the heart of God. And they work for us, helping us long for the right stuff, to learn to belong, to realize the story we are a part of, as Madeline L’Engle explores in her lovely The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth (Waterbrook; $16.99.)

Time didn’t allow, but in a more extensive workshop teaching about this, I’d look at least at the splendid table of contents of The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth by Mike Cosper (Crossway; $15.99) which gives us new ways to appreciate the stories we watch (or read!) Although written for viewers themselves, I think writers would be helped by The Stories We Tell, just being reminded how all this works.

In the middle of my talk I did a hefty, if quick, riff on James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos; $19.99.) It was during one of the points about how reading well can shape our desires (and, consequentially, our virtue, as so beautifully explored in the forthcoming On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press; $19.99.) I love Smith’s line about how our imaginations can be “conscripted into a story” of a certain vision of the good life. That’s what good stories do; they grab our hearts, shape our imagination, and thereby form our desires (for better or for worse, of course. They sneak right past those “watchful dragons” you know.) They help us want what we want and love what we love. For those who take Christian beliefs seriously, and want to be part of God’s redemptive story, the problem is, as Smith warns, we might not love what we think we do.

So, again — stories can shape our loves and desires and the social imaginaries which give rise to certain ways of life. That is, we become virtuous (or not) somewhat because of the stories we enter.

[To be clear, as Smith explains in You Are What You Love, this includes all sorts of influences by pop culture and our living in the world as we do; practices like how we shop and use cell phones, how we stand with our hands over our hearts singing an anthem to our nation, what we do, over and over, which he calls “secular liturgies.” But his point is utterly germane when we think about how novels shape us; Karen Swallow Prior knows this and nicely cites Smith early on in her forthcoming On Reading Well. Mark you calendars now if you are anywhere near us September 14th. If you care about story, if you love or want to love books, if you want a thoughtful conversation about virtue and narrative and loving the right stuff about the right books, you’ve got to join us!]

So, again, books matter, reading influences us, and consequently there is much at stake in the holy call to write well and artfully tell good stories of depth and truth.

Just for fun, here is a famous quote, again from C.S. Lewis, that I sometimes ponder when thinking about literature, about fiction reminding us how living in the “real” world is enhanced by stories, even fantasy and fairy stories. I hope my writer friends appreciate it (especially those that are writing fantasy or speculative fiction or some kind of magical realism:

Fairy land arouses a longing for [a child] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.


Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life Sarah Clarkson (Tyndale) $15.99  Oh how I wish I had known about this when we did our BookNotes a week or so ago about books you should pre-order. Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson comes out in September and you certainly should pre-order it right away. As I hope you saw, I highly recommended in that BookNotes On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (who will be doing a presentation at our store on September 14th 2018) and invited you to pre-order that book about reading. But this beautiful book by Sally Clarkson should also have been on that list as well. It comes out in September and the first few chapters are about as sweet as anything I’ve ever read about the power of books, the virtues of the reading life, and joy of discovering books. How interesting that there are two books about the reading life coming out from two Christian publishers this fall.

Book Girls: A Journey… is written specifically for women (it is called Book Girl, after all) but I was wiping tears from my eyes as I read these splendid, glorious words from a kindred sister. What a book! Much of the passion I shared for the role of a riveting story or the deep meaning of good fiction with the California ACFW gang is also found in Clarkson’s lovely, seasoned voice, and if you like being encouraged to read, or enjoy ruminations on why your book hobby is so very vital, well, this really is wonderful. You will love it.

The big second half of Book Girl is comprised of Sarah Clarkson’s remarkably interesting lists of books around varying themes and genres (fiction and non-fiction.) As I skimmed these chapters on real-life topics and marveled at the many books she deftly annotated I kept shaking my head in agreement and kept smiling in recognition…

Man, we stock a lot of these titles and so wish we had Sarah for a customer! Ha! Seriously, some bookstores might find a good book loving loyal customer or two the very thing that keeps them afloat in these hard days of declining interest in books and bookstores. I couldn’t help but thinking that maybe those who take her up on these high quality books will rediscover a favorite bookseller (and not buy them from the faceless porno-dealer Amazon.)

Books about books are always interesting to me, and we have bunches of them here at the shop, but this one is ideal for any Christian reader. Whether you’re a book girl or not. Again, you can pre-order this beautiful paperback even now at the 20% discount price.

The Word: Black Writers Talk about the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing edited by Marita Golden (Broadway) $14.99  I nearly have the first pages of this remarkable book memorized as I’ve read them out loud to so many groups… these opening vignettes of novelist and memoirist Marita Golden’s encounter with books have very significantly moved me and never fails to remind me of the impact of books and why we do what we do as booksellers. I love these kinds of anthologies about folks talking about the power of books, reading them and even writing them. That it is black writers makes it that much more vital.


Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans) $14.00  Those who are fairly new to BookNotes might want to click back to this short review I did of this when it first came out. Plantinga is famous for having written a number of great books (including one of my all times favorites, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living) but one of the most interesting (and generative) things he has done is to offer a retreat for pastors where they talk about novels (and other good writing) they have been assigned.This spectacular resource came out of those retreats; it was designed to enhance preaching, but I think it is fabulous for anyone that likes good books and wonders just a bit more of what we can learn from them. As Richard Lischer says, Reading for Preaching represents the gift of a lifetime.  And, again, no matter if you are a preacher or not, as Thomas Long writes, “This book is about delightful reading, and it is itself a delight to read.”

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish C. Christopher Smith (IVP) $16.00   I said in my little writer’s workshop that this was a book I wished I had written and that I so, so value it. I cannot but want to press a copy into the hands of anyone who cares about books, about thinking well and studying and talking about books and being committed to the reading life; Chris really understands the holy significance of books in Kingdom ministry and knows that slow reading and careful conversations are key practices to reform our social imaginaries. This book has such a unique and valuable take on things that I need to say that I even think that without a wider embrace of the ideas shared in this provocative, thoughtful book, the role of Christian bookstores may be doomed. Reading matters, and this gives as robust (and enjoyable) vision for that as any book I know. Buy a few, please, and share them. Give one to a book-lovin’ friend and one who ought to be. Yes!

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press) $19.95  Jacobs is an exquisite, world-class scholar, a serious essayist – think First Things or Image or the old Books & Culture – and this wonderful 2011 book was a contribution to the discussions around the topic of how on-line reading effects our capacity to pay attention, to read well, to retain what we’ve read. Important books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (a very good, if alarming, read) were pessimistic, exposing how too much time on Facebook and social media erodes our capacities to read seriously. The Shallows was understandably dire, an Amusing Ourselves to Death for the digital age. Well, in all of these conversations and broadsides against tech and laments about the erosion of our reading habits, few noted that what was at stake was not just retaining great learning, but, well, enjoyment. We are supposed to be having fun, reading books we like. So this wonderful book – still a rather serious work of lit-and-culture-criticism from Oxford University Press – is about pleasure. Many of our best customers have truly enjoyed it.

I wish I had mentioned the Jacobs’ Pleasures of Reading to my new writer friends in San Francisco. Although I emphasized all kinds of deep meaning and self-awareness and worldview formation and the like that reading fiction can evoke in us, let’s face it: authors want people to say they enjoyed their book! They want readers to take pleasure in the story. Yes, yes, yes.


Since I was talking to writers, inspiring them to think about their calling and task, to — highfalutin’ as it may sound – develop a Christian perspective on a philosophy of the arts and a theologically-sound perspective on the creative process and a faith-informed view of the craft of writing – I figured these two books simply had to be mentioned and heartily recommended. In a longer workshop I’d cite them carefully and read lovely, thoughtful excerpts. I bet you recall me mentioning them before.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.00  What if words were like natural resources, gift from God who wants to steward them well? These are brilliant “stewardship strategies” for anyone who uses words in these awful times. Highly recommended, especially for writers. Why don’t you just get it now, if you haven’t yet, because I’m going to keep recommending it over and over. It’s that good and that important.




Word By Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $17.99 This is like an ordinary Christian daily devotional, but instead of the standard Bible verse and reflection on it, this offers a word on ponder.  One reflects on it in a variety of ways, a different angle each day, for a week. It is a beautifully (and deeply spiritual) tutorial on plumbing the meaning of the words and phrases we use, entering into them in wise and fruitful ways.

I can’t say enough about those two books.  Writer or not, reader or not, these are so very important to our flourishing and health in this crazy world.

To reinforce some of this deep conviction of ours, at the very end of the Association of Christian Fiction Writer’s talk I cited what is shown in large, Celtic-type script on the back cover of the new fantasy novel (the first of a series, of course) by Stephen Lawhead:

“Thus does the world change, not with a sword. But with a word.”

That’s from the brand new In the Region of the Summer Stars, Book One in the Eirlandia series (Tor; $25.99.) I hope you know Steve Lawhead who has done a prodigious body of work of fantasy and (ancient) historical fiction.

And, if you will allow me this stream-of-consciousness mention, speaking of fantasy: it is great news for Tolkien lovers that Christopher Tolkien has been working on yet another (and most likely the last) unpublished story of Middle-earth fiction from his famous father. Look for The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien coming from Houghton Mifflin ($30.00) on the street date of August 30, 2918. Naturally, you can pre-order it by following the link to our secure order form page, below.


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King (Scribner) $17.00  I don’t know anyone who has read this book who hasn’t exclaimed about how surprised they were by it, and how enjoyable and inspiring it was; even, for some, how very helpful it was. It is by almost all accounts a tremendous read, wise and thoughtful and full of basic, solid advice, even if it is mostly written as a memoir. A hint: he’s interested in the mechanics of language usage more than you may wish but not big on plot outlines.



Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott (Anchor) $16.00  Are there any serious writers who don’t know this book? It was called “a warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps.” It is pretty clear that she came to Christian faith as she was writing this – Traveling Mercies colorfully tells that story, of course. An enduring book, it came out in 1994 (preceding the novel, a few years later, Crooked Little Hearts.) As the Seattle Times wrote of it, Bird by Bird is “A gift to all of us mortals who write or ever wanted to write… sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise and alternately cranky and kind – a reveille to get off our duffs and start writing now, while we still can.” Yup.


Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian Bret Lott (Crossway) $22.99  Kudos to Crossway, so many years ago influenced by Francis Schaeffer, for their conviction that, even for their very conservative theological views, they know that good art matters. They published novelist Larry Woiwode when the New Yorker crowd dropped him; they publish Lott, a New York Times bestselling author (whose book Jewel was even an Oprah Book Club selection) who has served on the National Council on the Arts. Yes, Lott is a straight-laced Baptist Sunday school teacher and he talks a lot in this collection of essays about his classic, evangelical faith, but he also offers deep and erudite ruminations on the craft of writing, on what we mean by “literary fiction” (he doesn’t know either, btw) and all manner of important stuff for serious literary types. Highly recommended.

The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling Charles Johnson (Scribner) $16.00  I have a few friends who swear by this meaty book by an fiction writer who has won the prestigious National Book Award. And who has a degree in philosophy and has been a MacArthur Fellow. In 2002 Johnson received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. James McBride – please tell me you know McBride — says about The Way of the Writer “A treasure chest of writing secrets and philosophy… told by a man who has kissed the black stone of literary excellence.”


Beate Not the Poore Desk: A Writer to Young Writers Walter Wangerin, Jr. (The Rabbit Room) $14.95 Walt Wangerin is one of the great writers of our time, a Lutheran pastor, fantasy writer, children’s author, memoirist, devotional writer, Bible scholar, poet, and novelist. My, my, my. You should read anything he writes. Kudos to The Rabbit Room for offering this book where this National Book Award-winner “turns his keen eye upon the craft of writing.”

Rev. Wangerin shares some of his own foibles and missteps as a writer and a lot of his own story, actually. But much of this is very, very practical. I promise that if you are a young writer you will really value this short book. A nicely designed paperback, too, with French Flaps that fold over; well done!

Shouts and Whispers: Twenty-One Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith edited by Jennifer L. Holberg (Eerdmans) $18.99 This is the second marvelous book that more or less came out of the legendary, bi-annual Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. Here you get remarkable, sometimes stunning, essays by excellent wordsmiths and storytellers such as Doris Betts, Frederick Buechner, Betty Smartt Carter, David James Duncan, Jan Karon, Joy Kogawa, Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, Brett Lott, Thomas Lynch, Katherine Paterson, Barbara Brown Taylor and more. Wow. Just wow. You need this.


Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong On Your Bookshelf Douglas Wilson (Crossway) $16.99  Wilson is a bit curmudgeonly and an incredible wordsmith (he himself wrote Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life.) This asks, in a way, why certain writers are legendary, classic, enduring. And what it means to choose wise ones to emulate. Of course it is a truism, a classic adage, that to be a better writer one must read good writers. Did I say that in the ACFW Zoom presentation? I intended to, but it almost sounds too self-serving, bookseller that I am. But I’ll say it here, now. To be a good thinker, a good writer, a good reader – read!

Here in the fascinating and entertaining Writers to Read: Nine Names… the opinionated Wilson tells you why he commends Chesterton, Menchken, Wodehouse, Eliot, Tolkien, Lewis, Capon, Marilyn Robinson, and his son N.D. Wilson.

On Stories And Other Essays on Literature C.S. Lewis (HarperOne) $13.99  This wasn’t supposed to be a list of books about literature, about reading and criticism, but about creativity and writing. Nonetheless, we simply must list at least this one by the great master. There are some lovely and some haunting and some very important chapters in this handsome, small paperback. The lead essay, “On Stories,” is truly classic, as is his “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.”  And I wonder what we should think about “The Death of Words”? While you’ve got your large cup of tea and are in a Lewisy mood, don’t forget his Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (HarperOne; $13.99.)



As I often do in presentations, I quote other authors (well there’s an understatement; I can almost hear my friends chuckling.) Quite regularly I quote or at least allude to Steve Garber. His Fabric of Faithfulness: Moving From Belief to Behavior (IVP; $19.00) is challenging but profound and such a great work; his Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (IVP; $17.00) remains one of my favorite books. In both exquisitely-written books he cites writers and novelists and artists. In Visions of Vocation Garber tells of an encounter with novelist Tom Wolfe (who was such a zesty non-fiction writer that he is credited with helping launch what is often called “the new journalism.”) When Wolfe died a week or two ago, Steve shared a tender piece on Facebook (that was somewhat similar to his telling in VoV.) It was too timely not to share.

You see, I was inviting these Christian fiction writers not to be simplistic or preachy, to “tell it slant” and to – regardless of what the “inspirational market” wants – invite readers to grow up and into the truth of things as they really are. Southern Novelist Walker Percy famously talked about how bad books always lie and I proposed to these authors that they must tell the truth about this glorious, broken world of wonder, the good, the bad, the ugly. My friend Bill Mallonee, an Americana roots rocker, has an album called Slow Trauma and that gets at something very sad but true about life East of Eden. (Francis Schaeffer, decades ago, in his fine little book Art and the Bible talked about the minor and major themes of a Biblical worldview, sorrowful fallenness and hopeful redemption, and why we need both in honest art.) Art dare not be weighted with too much of a message or lesson lest it be mere propaganda; further, a cheap conversion episode that makes everything happy in the end is not good or true. And so, we must be careful with sentimental religiosity or cheap endings as if we have to shoe-horn some religious message into the story for it to be considered Christian enough.

But that does not mean that gifted writers dare not attempt to wisely plumb the very mysteries of Christian conversion. And so, as I invited these writers to work hard to become good enough writers to tell rich and nuanced and honest stories, I paraphrased what my friend Steve reported about his long conversation with Wolfe. Here, you can read it for yourself.

“I don’t finish my stories very well, do I?”

When I saw the news of Tom Wolfe’s death this morning, I immediately thought back to a conversation with him many years ago. We were at a small table in the Senator’s dining room of the U.S. Capitol, a politician, two journalists, and a professor, me always the professor at the table. And for a good hour and more we talked, asking questions about many things.

But along the way, I asked about his novel, “A Man in Full,” telling him that I had spent my week at the beach reading his story of “the last great white football player at Georgia Tech,” who had given his life to remaking the Atlanta skyline. Forty-plus years later he has become fabulously wealthy, with businesses all over America. It is a long book, and I won’t even try to summarize it here, only to say that I thought he “cheated” at the end. In the story he makes clear that Stoicism is not a sufficient answer for human beings who want to live into history, seeing and hearing and feeling the world. At a critical point in the book, he makes that dramatically clear. But then the last pages are given to a warmed-over Stoicism, as some kind of answer for being and becoming “a man in full.”

So, with the great American novelist at the table, I told him that I was drawn into the story until the very end…. and he looked at me, with honest eyes, “I don’t finish my novels very well, do I?”

We talked some more, and he said, “I thought of a Christian conversion, but that’s already been done.” Anyone who knows me knows that I do not require “a Christian conversion” to believe that someone has a written a good story. I am always willing to read a book that wrestles with the truth of the human condition. But I am also aware that some of the very best books we know— “Crime and Punishment” and “Les Miserables,” for example —have a Christian conversion at the heart of their stories. Raskolnikov and Jean Valjean are names for the ages because of the complexity of their characters, human beings torn between the glory and the ruin of the human heart— and on the pilgrimages of their lives as told by Dostoevsky and Hugo, we see them humbled before the God of heaven and earth, finding great grace.

When we finished the conversation, I wanted to take a long walk across the Capitol grounds, continuing to talk with Wolfe. There seemed an openness and tenderness, and I wanted to know more.

And now he knows more… Lord, be merciful to all of us.


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“Achingly Beautiful” — 10 Great New Books That Are Very Well-Written ON SALE NOW at Hearts & Minds

Every now and then we offer a BookNotes list of titles that we are excited about not only because of the important content and inspiring messages of the books but especially because of the remarkable talent and glorious writing styles of the authors. What a pleasure to share time with really good writers. After spending a number of wonderful hours with a few of these I knew I had to tell you firstly about how well written they are, how much delight the wordplay and storytelling will bring, and then how they will help you learn and grow and see the world anew. With that in mind I jettisoned a few that were important but not utterly lovely and a few that I liked but didn’t love. There are plenty of excellent, important books. These ten are great because they are beautiful, so very nicely done, each in their own way, all well crafted and pleasing to read, even if the content includes some very hard stuff.

In an impassioned song that has inspired a wanna-be writer like me, singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith sings “bring the prose to the wheel.” I don’t know what that means, exactly (she’s singing about reading on a bus, I think, but, man…) These authors do it. They worked hard to steward their writerly gifts and they artfully told their truths, creating books that you will truly enjoy.

Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light Rachel Marie Stone (IVP) $16.00  I think I am more grateful for this book then nearly anything I’ve read this season and Stone’s well-crafted prose is certainly among the very best writing I’ve  encountered in a Christian book in ages. I have promoted this before I spent much time with it by stating the obvious: she is a doula and she works the birthing metaphor beautifully. What a great move, talking about bringing something new to the world by being vulnerable and taking up risk, like parents do. There’s some vivid childbirth stories and plenty of bodily talk about womanly stuff. (I do not buy any assumptions of squeamishness about this attributed to guys; women and men alike may be squeamish and women and men alike will take it all in with wide-eyed wonder. This powerful bit of prose is not a “woman’s book” although surely many will love it.)

Really, though, this book, besides being about “birthing hope” is about coping with fright and anxiety; don’t miss the important sub-title!  Stone could be a major memoirist the way she narrates her life and, like any good memoirist, she can turn fairly common place memories like being afraid of swimming or more eccentric ones such as her girlhood fascination with her Jewish heritage and a fear of the another holocaust, into golden insights. Each chapter explores themes or episodes or fears and they are like their own marvelous short stories.

Her reflections from her girlhood days, her young adult years, her stint in medical missions in Malawi, and her vocation as a young mother, all disclose so much goodness even though many of the stories are freighted, heavy with sadness or perplexities. I love her writing and am grateful for her wise teaching. I love the cover, too, by the way, which is glorious to hold.

The excellent writer Amy Julia Becker (you’ve got to read her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny and the very lovely Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most ) says of it: Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last. “

Wesley Hill writes:

In Stone’s 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 made.

Lauren Winner, herself an amazing wordsmith and talented storyteller and hardworking writer, says this:

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.

I think she is right — all sorts of readers will love this, and we are eager to celebrate it, promote it, helping get the word out about it luminous writer and beautiful storytelling and deep insight.

God, Improv, and the Art of Living MaryAnn McKibben Dana (Eerdmans) $21.99  Oh man, this is a fabulous book, well-written, creative, and very interesting. It is a brand new release that I can honestly say – I love saying this! – that there is nothing like it in print! Ms. McKibben Dana is a good storyteller and a fine, fine essayist – her first book was the lively year-long memoir called Sabbath in the Suburbs: One Family’s Experiment with Holy Time – and here she offers a blend of creative reflection on her experiences, some artful self-helpy sort of practical guidance, a bit of allusive theology (she is a Presbyterian USA pastor, a bit progressive and open.) It’s well written, entertaining, and in many ways wise.

But here’s the thing:  yup, the subtitle isn’t messing with you. This is a story of the author’s many years taking an improv comedy class and her involvement in improv shows. The subtitle could be “what I learned about life and faith in improv comedy class.” That comedian Susan Isaac wrote the forward should be a clue to something (and, I’m not kidding, I really, really loved Susan’s excellent introduction, about her own struggle to live in two worlds—the world of her Lutheran, Christian upbringing and the world of stand-up comedy and being a comic actress. Can anybody mouth “law and grace” perhaps? The ways of rules and the ways of freedom?)

At the heart of this wild book are two big claims that are common sense enough, to my weird ears, anyway, and from which the author extrapolates. First, God wants us to say Yes. And, secondly, that yes, really must be a Yes, And.

That is, we must get busy and improvise as we go.

My friends Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat were the first that I knew to speak playfully and yet seriously about this, and they tell me that some of their insights about this phrase of the Biblical story where we improvise — knowing the earlier acts and having the final act — came from their friendship with N.T. Wright. Sam Wells has a seminal book on the theology of improvisation called Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics – a bit heady, and not too funny, but McKibben Dana draws on it, wisely. Others have preached this process before, but nobody I know has so literally linked it to stuff she learns in the improv class. Her insight about stand up, about comedy, about improvisation, about that vulnerable, pregnant “yes, and…” is fabulous.

It isn’t every Christian book that has a blurb on the back by a comedian with the legendary Second City troupe, but this one does. Sarah Little (also a filmmaker) says of God, Improv, and the Art of Living:

This spiritual guide explores a world of universe-expanding possibility through the simple act of uttering the word yes.

Ken Evers-Hood, author of The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church, says:

Life happens. Living well means improvising, which is a craft that can be practiced and honed. In MaryAnn McKibben Dana we have the gift of an honest, playful, and deeply wise guide. In this book you will find practical insight drawn from the world of improv, tested in the crucible of pastoral ministry, and engagingly told in story after story.”

Faith Among the Faithless: Learning From Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad Mike Cosper (Nelson) $16.99 I have recommended all of Cosper’s books in recent years, from his wonderful book on worship (Rhythms of Grace and the great study of pop culture called The Stories We Tell and the remarkably thoughtful, rich study Recapturing the Wonder.) I list this brand new one now because he is a very fine writer and a very fine thinker and to show that even a Bible commentary can be playful, creative, culturally engaged and full of inspired insight about living well in the very real world.

Okay, Faith Among the Faithless isn’t really a Bible commentary but it does afford us the chance to do a careful reading of the book of Esther, and invites us to a slightly creative but very faithful re-telling. It really is a book about the book of Esther

I know I say this a lot, but the 10-page introduction is worth the price of the book. Really – what an insight; one I’ve never heard. In it, Cosper warns us of some of the hard, surprising stuff in Esther; one section is called “Less VeggieTales, More Game of Thrones” where he reminds us, among other thigns, of the amount of impaling that occurs in this seemingly godless book. And some pretty gross sexual violence.

In a fascinating move Cosper says that for those of us looking for faithful presence in the world and uniquely Christian cultural engagement and calls to fidelity amidst our post-Christendom culture, we might find much more sturdy help from the backslidden and compromised Esther and Mordecai rather than the steadfast Daniel. Both are stories set in exile, but Daniel – the hero of so many sermons about cultural transformation — was raised in a firm faith tradition and he knew well the stories of Israel. Alas, it seems (and this is evident in the close reading Cosper gives) our heroes of Esther were far from fidelity, deeply compromised, clearly accommodated to the pagan ethos of the empire of Xerxes et al.

And so, we need “faith among the faithless” – and, surprise — it seems Mr. Cosper is suggesting that the faithless are not just our secularized neighbors but we who are so accommodated to the ways of the world. The world may seem disenchanted (he’s studied his Charles Taylor!) but we can still encounter God through this story of great evil. (And, again, let us not forget, much of the evil in this wild Bible book, is about the oppression of women, of vile and violent practices, vital to appreciate in our #metoo moment.)

Mike Cosper tells the plot of Esther, explains a lot of historical and socio-political background, and gently suggests much about the subversive nature of the rowdy Purim holiday. He invites us to partake. It doesn’t have quite the punch of Colossians Remixed, say, but it has guts and grit and is wonderfully written. Lit prof Karen Swallow Prior (author of Fierce Convictions, a well-written book about another crusading woman, Hannah More) says, “It’s been a long time since I have been so informed, inspired, and encouraged.” That’s quite an endorsement for Faith Among the Faithless.

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 of it already; it has garnered so much buzz and been reviewed so well, it is nearly a publishing phenomenon, riding the best-seller list for a while, now. 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 preachers. She 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 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.

Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer Philip Britts (Plough Publishing) $16.00  Talk about a handsome book – just the cover and artful design throughout won us over before we even read a page. Happily, the aesthetic quality (most of the book is poetry) is front and center, even though it is a book about agrarianism. That is, very much like Wendell Berry, Philip Britts (1917- 1949) was a poet and a farmer and social activist and a person of faith. He was also a pastor and a bit of a mystic.  We are thrilled that our friends at Plough Publishing – the publishing arm of the Bruderhof faith communities – has released these long out-of-print essays, narratives, and poems. And, oh, the poems…

As the folks at Plough tell us, “Britts’s story is no romantic agrarian elegy, but a life lived in the thick of history. The international pacifist community he joined, the Bruderhof, was soon forced to flee from Europe to South America.”

That Britts chose to root himself not only in God but in an intentional community which attempted to restore the land they farmed, makes his simple life itself one of great beauty and courage. He speaks powerfully to our own times, even as he presciently foresaw much that was brewing in the middle of the 20th century with its idolatry of speed and progress and growth. Our age is still “wracked by racism, nationalism, materialism, and ecological devastation” so, as it says in the publishing promo material, “the life he chose and the poetry he composes remain a prophetic challenge.”

The graphic design of Water At the Roots is striking. There are some grainy black and white photos that are just perfect. The chapter’s that bring together his few essays, reflections and poems, are Wilderness, Ploughing, Planting, Cultivating, and Harvesting. There is a very good – no, wonderful — forward by David Kline, the famous author who has written important, intelligent books about Amish farming methods and his own organic farm in Ohio. He gets Britts’s worldview, his writing, his early anticipation of the problems of agribusiness, his faith, his stewardship of the mysteries. With Kline setting the stage, you will even more deeply realize that Water at the Roots is an important little book. But first, it is truly lovely, artful book.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness Austin Channing Brown (Convergent) $25.00  Eloquent, moving, compelling writing about race and racism – like eloquent, moving writing about grief, say – is not uncommon. Something about the worst in life brings out good words, inspired words of rage, lament, insight, grace. That this new book is a smallish hardcover of a certain trim shape immediately brings to mind Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, the decade’s most well-known writing by African American scholars who have worn their broken hearts right on their sleeves and have been catapulted to fame for their eloquence and profundity and wordsmithing. (The trim sized hard-covers that were so very well written and culturally significant to which I refer are, of course, Coates’s Between the World and Me and Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop.) It is too early to determine if I’m Still Here will become known as a similarly fervent, well-told story of one black woman’s journey through white America, but it very well might. Christena Cleveland calls it “a stunning debut.” 

If Coates explored the pathos of his life through his historical and atheist lenses, and Dyson brings his classic, black church intellectual passion – he is a pastor and sociologist – Ms. Austin Channing Brown tells her story of being an evangelical black woman in a largely white subculture. Her telling of her frustration and anguish (and exhaustion) being often the only person of color in mostly white schools, organizations, workplaces and churches, is a story that needs to be told, and we are grateful.

Her candor may upset some readers, but so be it. Like Coates, just for instance, Austin Channing is a person you should know, and I’m Still Here is a book that needs to be read, with words that need to be felt, if even they sting.

Austin is a black woman of searing honesty and serious truth. I’ve read about half of this already – it released just today! – and I hope many order it from us. It not only is an important bit of “insider information” that especially white readers need to hear but, again, in keeping with my theme of this post, it is very well done, astutely written, poignant and passionate.  Even if it didn’t glow as it does, it would be worth working through. But like the gripping Coates and Dyson, the words matter and the writing is itself make I’m Still Here a real standout. Highly recommended.

Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People Bob Goff (Nelson) $16.99 We’ve already announced this one; we were very, very happy to describe it here the week it arrived. We knew then that it would be an energetic, upbeat read and we have certainly not been disappointed. There’s a reason it has zoomed to the top of the best-sellers list.

Bob is one of the most dynamic storytellers working these days and his great skill at telling fun and funny and poignant tales is so very compelling because his real life is full of nearly manic goodness. His capers are improvisational, his experiments in serving others makes for fantastic chapters, his charm should be contagious, his passion to share Jesus’s love with other is extraordinary. You’ve never met anyone like him and you will be entertained for hours by going along for the ride through his amiable, interesting book. More importantly, as we read, we’ll be caught up in the drama and – let’s hope – find ourselves joining him in this parade of generosity.

Two customers — two the same day! — told us last week that they are reading only a chapter a day because they don’t want this book to end.  They loved his popular Love Does and they are loving this.  You will too.

Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else Melanie Springer Mock (Herald Press) $16.99 I was intrigued by the curious cover – see that one little circle that’s different? — and was intrigued by the first line of the excellent foreword by Carolyn Custis James who says “Every once in a while, a book lands on my desk that I wish I had read when I was in college. Worthy is one of those books.”

Bromleigh McCleneghan, herself a sometimes spicy author, says it is “Wise, cantankerous, charming” and Evangelicals for Social Action editor Elrena Evans nicely notes that “Reading Worthy is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a best friend you didn’t know you had.”

I agree. This book is important and smart – getting at the question of our worth, how we often harbor fears that we are enough, hinting at the problem of shame and hurt. And what it means to find one’s deepest sense of calling in the world – it is all very well done. There are good stories and excellently-crafted illustrations and no small amount of incisive cultural criticism in this work. It is life-giving and enjoyable and good, even when she is poking hard at evangelical customs and cheap religious advice. Mock is an English professor (at George Fox University) so she knows good literature, has an ear for good writing, and is gifted at weaving her own curious narrative into her critique of the massive self-improvement industry and a church that too often offers up cookie-cutter formulas for happiness that are themselves skewed and distorted.

Worthy: Finding Yourself… is a book of liberation and hope and it’s a wonderfully charming read. What a book, for men and for women, by the way. You will enjoy it and you will want to share it with somebody you know, I’m sure. It’s that good.

Stretch Marks I Wasn’t Expecting: A Memoir on Early Marriage and Motherhood Abbie Smith (Kalos Press) $15.95  Kalos Press is an small, indie publisher we like a lot; that they do artful, well-written and spiritually sound books like this is the main reason why. We were thrilled to announce this when it came out nearly a half a year ago but we’ve not had the opportunity to tell you about it again… although I’ve been itching to. Stretch Marks… is sort of a memoir, well told and delightfully interesting, but which includes spiritual reflections and Bible explorations. It is about the early years of the author’s marriage and her becoming and being a new mom. And it is so much more; a lot, actually.

Abbie has been a writer for years – she wrote a helpful book for college students about honoring God in their collegiate lives, she wrote another about sexuality back when she was a pensive single woman. She is lively and literate; she has even spoken a few times at our beloved Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh. After earning an MDiv in spiritual formation (at Talbot) and getting married to a wonderful, thoughtful guy, she and her husband became caretakers of Wesley Gardens Retreat in Savannah, Georgia, where they attend an Anglican congregation. I love her blend of generous self-reflection and her deep awareness of the contemplative and liturgical traditions. She blends them nicely in what she calls “noisy graces.” You gotta love that, eh?

Abbie is a charming storyteller and a serious thinker and uses the Bible well in her meditations and teachings.  She has honed her craft of writing and it shows in this mature and thoughtful memoir.

As writer Marlena Graves says

Abbie does a masterful job of bringing the reality of ‘noisy graces’ to the fore and demonstrating that we too are being formed even as we seek to disciple and form our children. Read and hand out to the mothers you know – and dads too!

Chapter titles are allusive and intriguing with titles like chopped, womb, ache, form, rest, manna, safe, dust and more. There is plenty of Scripture, an occasional quote from contemplatives or prayer books, from the Book of Common Prayer to the Puritan Valley of Vision. There are 18 chapters and a very good reflection guide that makes this a great choice for a book club or small group or for one to use in one’s own quiet time of soul care.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and invite you to consider something: even though this a memoir of the early years of a woman’s marriage and how she was changed by parenting her young children (biological and adopted) this is not just a book for new moms. It is such a good read that it could be entertaining and insightful and good for almost anyone. Highly recommended.

Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints Christiana N. Peterson (Herald Press) $16.99  This is a beautiful book, surprisingly so, even. There are many informative and nicely written books on historic saints and there are plenty on Francis so it is understandable not to jump immediately on yet another. But trust me. This is remarkable.

Many of us have taken comfort the way the literature reminds us that the great monks and mystics and saints and heroes of the faith have often been, well, quirky; a bit strange and ill-content. Counter-cultural. Weird, even, if you want to be honest about it. And so, I was immediately struck by how this word pairing – mystics and misfits – rolled off the tongue. It is important to remember that the saints and spiritual masters we most admire were odd and often subversive, and that little alliteration in the title gave me hopes that Peterson would not just bring the hard truth of the counter-cultural nature of deep spirituality but would do so with charm and wit and literary grace.

And did she ever! This M&M book is so very interesting, so soulful, so moving, that we truly want to tell everyone who loves good books about it. Writer and editor and Francis fanboy Jon Sweeny himself says it is “achingly beautiful” – a blurb which drew me in wondering if that could be true, prose approaching the sublime. Another review called it “gorgeous and quirky.” Richard Rohr observes that it is “so well written” and promises that it is also “filled with gems.” Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God…, like others we’ve mentioned in this list, is a work of art, a wonderful read, an expertly crafted, fabulous book.

Christiania Peterson’s style is curious – there are standard-type chapters, there are interludes, and even letters written to several old saints, which are actually fantastic and slyly clever. (She calls Dorothy Day a “saint for difficult people.”) There are memoir-like chapters of her own life unfolding as she studied the saints and there are chapters with simple, clear summaries of the lives of many great mystics (from Francis and Clare to Simone Weil to Margery Kempe to Dorothy Day.) I’m not sure if I’d best describe this as a book about the mystics and misfits and how a woman was inspired by them, or a memoir of a woman who happened to take inspiration from her study of the saints. There’s a lot of her own story – an adventurous move to an intentional Christian farming community, a hard story of a floundering Mennonite congregation, a tale of betrayal and exhaustion and struggles, with the farm and the people. Still, as the publisher promises, she writes “with a contemplative’s spirit and a poet’s eye” helping us all encounter wild mystics and weird misfits and “the God who loves us madly, no matter how disillusioned we are or how miserably we fail.” Very highly recommended.


I suspect, dear readers, that most of these books will not be on the Christian best-seller lists. I don’t mean to feed our cynicism about such things, but they are mostly just too good. Many of the religious stores you know most likely don’t even stock these. We want to commend them for how well done they are, how interesting, how entertaining, how helpful. They should not be rare and the publishers deserve our support. Lustrous books like this can transport you into the lives of others and you will come out better for it. Live it up. Buy some beautiful books.


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