“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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PRE-ORDER FORTHCOMING BOOKS: “Believe Me” by John Fea, “Disruptive Witness” by Alan Noble, “On Reading Well” by Karen Swallow Prior, “The Edge of Over There” by Shawn Smucker, “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans – ALL 20% OFF

We often tell folks that they can pre-order almost any book at any indie bookstore; despite how publishers and authors inexplicitly tell people to go to Amazon (which may, admittedly, be easy, since they get data from publishers usually before anyone else) it is nonetheless true that indie stores are happy to serve their customers with personalized attention. We are encouraged when somebody thinks to send a pre-order our way and appreciate the business.

Before telling you of a few eagerly awaited forthcoming books which you might want to pre-order now, take a look at this lovely article written about indie bookstores and small publishers. You’ll be tickled to see Hearts & Minds described so well by Valerie Weaver-Zercher, an editor at Herald Press. “Books Love the Small: How Indie Stores and Publishers Fill the Niches” first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in honor of Indie Bookstore Day last weekend. Nice, huh?



All you have to do is go to our secure order form page, enter your information, and tell us what you want. We’ll reply back with a personal email and confirm everything.  Easy.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump John Fea (Eerdmans) $24.99 // sale price $19.99

DUE DATE:  JUNE 28, 2018

This book is without a doubt one of the most important books for 2018. Agree fully or not with his assessment of how many evangelicals got so deeply in bed with the bizarre and brazen Donald Trump, it is an expert study of the recent history of the role of conservative religion and right wing politics. Which is to say it is an important book for anyone who cares about our republic, or about the integrity of the Christian witness in the world.  Fea is a good friend, an esteemed and pleasantly intense history professor at nearby Messiah College. His book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? has won a number of awards and has appeared on our own “Best of…” list the year it came out. We stock an earlier work, too, about a colonial leader and his embrace of almost a Wendell-Berryesque agrarianism in the 18th century, The Road of Improvement Leads Home.  

That is also the name of his very popular and widely read blog where he has been offering his own historian’s take on and analysis of the role of conservative evangelicals in the 2016 Presidential primary and national election. (By the way, I just read Katy Tur’s Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, her very spicy memoir of her front line reporting on the hot mess of that primary and the subsequent national campaign, embedded as she was with the team Trump. Wow; just wow. If you are interested in politics at all, it’s worth ordering from us. I couldn’t put it down.) Although there are many secular books coming out on the spectacle of Trump’s first years (although very partisan, I highly recommend a new one we carry called Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our County by the always interesting Steve Almond) no one has studied well the history of the rise of the evangelical movements role in the Donald Trump campaign and administration with as much insight and authority as John Fea.

I suppose that Dr. Fea’s most important credential for this project is that he is a studious, adventurous historian who has specialized for decades in the role of religion in our civic life. Not only has he published chapters and edited volumes about faith-informed historiography – as Mark Noll and George Marsden and C.T. McIntire did a generation or so ago – he has done a lovely, accessible book called Why Study History? Professionally, he has focused on Protestant and evangelical influences on our political life. Dr. Fea is very involved in his own professional guilds and scholarly associations and has been paying attention to these vital matters as a historian for years; he’s got the scholarly chops, and he’s passionate as a historian (albeit a fairly non-partisan but not far right one, it seems. For the record he finds the massive accommodation of evangelical faith to far-right power politics very troubling for the commonwealth and, as an evangelical himself, a betrayal of a Biblical-informed, theologically mature, Christianly sound, political perspective.)

Which leads me to the second large credential that sets this author apart from others reporting on this topic. John is, in fact, an evangelical. He teaches at a Christian college in the evangelical tradition. He regular attends an evangelical church that might be described as mega. He regularly is involved in uniquely evangelical meetings and conferences with the likes of evangelical scholars like Jay Green of Covenant College and Mark Noll of Wheaton College and Eric Miller of Geneva College. That he has a dog in this fight, as they say, is clear, although he writes with considerable fairness and explains the cultures of fear and alarmism and culture warring with evangelicalism with more charity than might be expected. He dons the role of the prophet at times and is hard-hitting in his critique, but one senses this is the cry of a wounded friend, a “lovers quarrel” as Frederick Buechner once put it.

Former White House staffer Michael Ware, author of the must-read Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America, says that Fea “takes evangelicalism seriously, treating it with the honest respect it deserves.”

And so, you should pre-order this fine work that is due out in early June 2018. I’ve read the whole thing (and most of it twice.) I will say that his early chapter (“The Evangelical Politics of Fear”) is very helpful. His chapter “The Playbook” shows how the current evangelical worldview was decisively shaped by the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and they continue to work politically out of that same vision. It is a very important overview. His study of why many evangelicals found the Obama years so very troubling is good to understand. One simply cannot fully appreciate what has been happening in some quarters of our land without this understanding of “evangelical fear.”

His explanation of what he calls the “court evangelicals” is useful for anyone wanting to know the odd array of popular but not mainstream religious leaders who have become part of the President’s advisory council. I suppose it was beyond the task of this book to dissect and nuance the varying faith traditions within conservative Protestantism but it is my strong contention that it isn’t accurate to describe prosperity heretics such as Paula White (and the “Independent Network Charismatics”) and those who deny the Trinity, and hyper fundamentalists (like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham) as evangelicals. I myself have written about this in BookNotes, as have those who know more about the sociology of religion and American church history than I and I wished John would have addressed our concerns in Believe Me. Again, to be clear, the whole thesis of this book, mirroring what the undiscerning and ill-informed secular press has said, assumes that the 81% of white conservative Protestants who voted for Trump are, actually, members of the evangelical tradition and I suggest that they are not. (This stems, for what it’s worth, from a very bad Pew Research poll that didn’t allow for fundamentalists and Pentecostals and civil religionists to identify themselves by those terms. The poll question asked if one is a Catholic, a mainline Protestant or an Evangelical. Of course Southern civil religionists involved in the KKK or crazy Trinity-denying Pentecostals or anti-evangelical Fundamentalists couldn’t say they identified as Catholic or mainline Protestant, so “evangelical” was the closest tradition to their own. Hence the 81% includes some religionists who are a far cry from historic evangelicalism.)

Extremist fundamentalists and Pentecostals are the very groups that modern-day evangelicalism broke away from. Evangelicals are post-fundamentalists; their main journalistic organ, Christianity Today (co-founded by Billy Graham himself) wrote firm rebukes of Trump during the campaign and discouraged their readers from any enthusiastic support. If there is any weakness to Believe Me it is that (for understandable reasons) it doesn’t fight this fight of reclaiming or clarifying the word evangelical and fails in calling those who surround the President evangelical, when I submit that they are mostly not. Many of them, in fact, despise evangelicalism for being too moderate, too intellectual, too ecumenical.

Yet, Doc Fea’s historian’s eye is helpful on all this, and he reminds us that this rise of quasi-evangelical fundamentalism and the weirder versions of Pentecostalism has developed in the context of broad evangelicalism arising from its storied past. He talks about many of the episodes and factions of evangelical history such as the rise of the holiness movement, the Southern racial tensions in the Antebellum years, of dispensationalism, the impact of the Scopes trial, and other such seminal events and trends.

Fea writes:

As the reader can see, this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long – going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive [some] white evangelicals into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history.

Do you remember from your history studies the Know-Nothing Party? Do you know about the nativist outbursts of Lyman Beecher? As Fea reminds us, “This is the historical context that white evangelicals in America have inherited. We have been here before. In some sense, we have never left.”

Fea’s study of the politics of fear, the desire for power, and the role of nostalgia, is nearly brilliant. He knows his American history, he knows the recent players and issues that have lead many evangelicals on a road to Trump, incongruous, as it has been. He invites us in a wonderful concluding chapter to Biblical hope to counter fear, Christ-like humility instead of power, and the study of history as the antidote to idolatrous nostalgia. Believe Me is a very important book and I hope you pre-order it today. I am sure we will be among the first to have it by mid-June.

And, if you are near central PA, keep an eye open as we hope to host John here at the shop talking about Believe Me.  TBA, as they say.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age Alan Noble (IVP Books) $16.00 // sale price $12.80

DUE DATE:   JULY 17, 2018

This is a book for which many of us have been waiting for years! Alan Noble is a fascinating young scholar, witty and active, never quite predictable, with a great social media presence. You should know his stuff. Although he teaches English at Oklahoma Baptist University he write about public affairs, too, and is also the cofounder and editor and chief of Christ and Pop Culture an online journal which is well worth reading. He has written for outlets as diverse as the Atlantic, Vox and Buzzfeed and First Things, Christianity Today and the Gospel Coalition. Which is to say, he’s my kind of guy.

This forthcoming book is a study that draws on the important work of philosopher Charles Taylor. It isn’t as scholarly or focused on Taylor as James K.A. Smith’s essential How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor but knowing that (or at least knowing about it) would be helpful, although Noble himself will do a good job as a fine guide. As the publisher promises, Professor Noble “builds on the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in an accessible way.” In fact, the book looks at Taylor’s take in the first half, and then in the second offers a model for fruitful witness in the secular age. It is very much about offering concrete practices that we can live out and embody to disrupt things, to witness well by (as the subtitle says) “speak truth in a distracted age.”

Obviously, we live in a distracted and distracting age. Newbigin, for instance, importantly shows how pluralism leads to pluralizing; choice and change are constant and that only complicates our efforts, such as they are, to pursue substantive reflection and deep engagement with the world. Is Taylor right that we live in an age when all beliefs are “equally viable and real transcendence is less plausible?” What cross tensions!

Christian speaker and author and journalist Katelyn Beaty writes, “Noble’s teaching gives me hope for the possibility of enfleshed Christian witness in an age that is prone to mostly shrug at ultimate questions.”

Alan is feisty and fun and upbeat and, as you can tell from his work at the Christ and Pop Culture site, is very interested in the world of TV and video games and movies and sports and such. He also founded, with Michael Ware, an organization called “Public Faith” and has a lot to say about what Michael Gerson once called “heroic conservativism” and he offers a balanced political witness for the common good. He cares about cultural flourishing and he cares about civic life. In Disruptive Witness he casts a new vision for the evangelical imagination, helping us playfully poke the idols of the age, subverting the ideologies of the time, creating space for fresh conversations. (Do you recall how we raved about Os Guinness’s brilliant Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion? If you admired that, you will like this, I’m sure, even though it is a very different book.)

The advance IVP catalogue copy offers a helpful tease for what will be included in Disruptive Witness. They says it lays out “ individual, ecclesial, and cultural practices that disrupt our societies deep rooted assumptions and point beyond them to the transcendent grace and beauty of Jesus.”

Michael Horton says that “Alan Noble displays the disruptive resources of Christ’s Kingdom that are at hand. I will be recommending this book far and wide.”

Listen to what Karen Swallow Prior says:

If you want to know what the next generation of evangelicalism could and should look like, look to Alan Noble.

Why not order Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age today? Start with the disruptive, subversive practice of ordering not from the secularized facelessness of Amazon. That would make no sense. Call or email us today!

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press) $19.99 // sale price $15.99


Oh my, I can’t wait to review this book in greater detail when it comes out at the very end of the summer. We are planning a book release party for this remarkable work here at the bookstore in mid-September (the author will be doing some things in Lancaster on Friday September 14th so we hope to have here in Dallastown on that Friday night.) One of the great joys of promoting this book, and hosting an event, is that there are expert linocut prints created for each chapter by our pal Ned Bustard of Square Halo Books and World’s End Images; the original artwork will be on display at the Square Hal Gallery in the Lancaster Trust building and we hope to have some prints to show at our event as well.

Kudos to Brazos Press for including this handsome touch. Bustard, you might want to know, is doing a printmaking workshop at the legendary Glen Workshop sponsored by Image Journal. The prints done for each chapter of On Reading Well are remarkable in that they capture something of the essence of each story that literature Prof and book lover Karen Swallow Prior explores.

Prior is an ideal person to do a book like this – each chapter is on a particular work of literature, each disclosing a classic Christian virtue – because not only is she a fine Christian university lit teacher, but she herself tends to narrate her own life through the lens of the books she has read. We raved here at BookNotes about her fabulous 2012 memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press; $17.99),which tells some of her life story by way of a connected set of book reviews, showing how key books have played a significant role in her life. (Has anyone thought to do this before? Has anyone done it so well?) Swallow has learned much from books throughout her life and we have been inspired listening in, reading over her shoulder, as it were, in Booked and subsequent articles and lectures. In the forthcoming On Reading Well she is a bit more didactic, explanatory, yet inviting, calling us to this journey of engaging good authors, reading well, for the sake of our own inner transformation and our life of faithfulness to Christ in the modern world.

One of my favorite books is by C. Christopher Smith (of the excellent, provocative Englewood Review of Books) who wrote Reading for the Common Good which is very much about how reading widely can be missional, building bridges of insight and wisdom in our churches and neighborhoods. He counsels not only that we read for formation, but that we also read for mission – realizing that books are tools of discipleship and incarnational Kingdom living in the world. It’s the kind of stuff I say in my own workshops about reading and the role of books. “Read for the Kingdom!” I sometimes cry out. Smith gets it.

Dr. Prior, who got her PhD from SUNY and is an award-winning English prof at Liberty University, has done a very significant biography of the literary figure, poet, and abolitionist colleague of William Wilberforce, Hannah More. There’s a poet and novelist for the common good, eh? She would certainly agree that reading well can be missional.

Ms Prior has written for The Washington Post and First Things and the Atlantic. She is a member of something called the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United State (like her beloved Wilberforce and Hannah More, she is an advocate for just treatment of animals.) Like John Fea and Alan Noble, above, she is our kind of scholar – thoughtful, deeply Christian, open to fresh ideas about the culture and our times, and able to hold her own in professional and secular venues. We admire her very much.

But, oh my, she is in her very special wheelhouse – one I want to be in when I settle down and grow up – in this extraordinary work. On Reading Well is not just another reminder of the value of good books, an inspirational reminder to read solid stuff. Of course it is that – don’t we book-lovers just love books about books? – and for anyone who cares about great literature, buying this is nearly a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want a Christian author reflecting deeply on The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities and Silence and Flannery O’Connor? My goodness, Hearts & Minds fans should be thrilled to hear of an evangelical engagement with Persuasion by Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and so much more.

Did you get that? Yes, she studies and helps us learn much from Pilgrim’s Progress but also Tolstoy? She studies Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy? How many embrace the virtues of reading George Saunders and Edith Wharton? Are you feeling me here, people?

And here is the best part: this is, perhaps a bit unlike the general call to read deeply and widely by Smith in Reading for the Common God, or the amazingly fun and valuable Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga, or the many other overviews of great literature and what we can get out of them (for a view that isn’t necessarily Christian but wise and wonderful see The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living both by Will Schwalbe) Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books is a study of virtue. It draws a particular classical virtue from these works of literature and helps us learn how to embrace these virtues and be formed by them. The discussion questions that follow make it a great book for any book club but also makes On Reading Well useful for any spiritually-minded group that wants to grapple with call to character and being formed in the ways and virtues of Christ. If you’ve been reading Jamie Smith (just for instance) this talk about inner formation and virtue habits will ring true.

We will tell you more once the book comes out in the early fall but you should know that she explains nicely the role of books and reading in character formation – a notion that Leland Ryken says in his substantive foreword goes back to Aristotle and was championed in the Renaissance. He laments that such a morally infused style of reading was eroded to near collapse by the Enlightenment with an assault sustained in the standard approaches taught in public schools and colleges today. Ryken raves about Karen’s “revisionist agenda, which is, of course, nothing less than a return to the great tradition.”

The great emeritus professor insists that the achievement of On Reading Well is “of the highest order.” He says the book is “a monument to scholarship” (noting her copious research of all the right sources.”

I like that Dr. Ryken, though, also says this. Note it well:

I will confess that as a literary scholar I have always been somewhat resistant to moral criticism of literature because I fear it will become moralistic. But right from the start, Karen Swallow Prior puts these fears to rest. The moral dimension of literature is only one dimension of literature, she assures us, and it does not exist separate from the aesthetic form of a work. The moral viewpoint of a work is not stated abstractly but embodied in the particulars of the text, especially the characters.

Which is to say, a book like this about the ways books can help us become more virtuous and Christ-like must not be simplistic or pushy or turn into propaganda. The stories selected have to stand up as stories, which means they must be allusive and entertaining and captivating and any reflections on them must themselves be somewhat entertaining. Like a really good Bible commentary, ruminations on the text must not squash the text but must draw us into it. If On Reading Well isn’t a good read, it has failed.

Order it today and we’ll send it as soon as it comes, a bit before the official release date, I’m sure. You can see for yourself that these studies of Huckleberry Fin and The Road and “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders are as interesting and useful as I say. Will you grow in your passion for justice by her explorations of A Tale of Two Cities? Will you understand and deepen your own practice of the cardinal virtue of temperance by studying Gatsby? Will you become more faithfully chaste by reading Ethan Frome? How will her three book reviews of Silence, The Road, and The Death of Ivan Ilych help you manifest faith, hope, and love?

The introduction to this fantastic book is simply called “Read Well, Live Well.” I hope you want this for yourself and your family and your group. Why not plan to pre-order a bunch to read together? The black and white art and the detailed study questions will help. You won’t regret it.

The Edge Of Over There Shawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99 // sale price $14.39

DUE DATE: July 3, 2018

Well, perhaps you think that these hefty books are a bit much — serious-minded and culturally significant; important. Indeed they are. But how about another pre-order that is fun and engaging, captivating and – yes, if Karen Swallow Prior is right about how good stories can transform us – also important in its own artful way? How about a fun, upbeat, fantasy novel that is well written without being overly intense, that will grab you with a well-told story and give you many hours of pleasurable entertainment? How about an enchanting, supernatural thriller, perfect for summer or early fall?

I have not seen this forthcoming story yet but I can say a few things that might help convince Hearts & Minds friends and fans to pre-order this from us. Shawn Smucker is a very good writer. He’s somewhat local, hailing of an Amish background from Lancaster County. He’s done some self-publishing, some e-books, some speaking and travel, but broke out into the big-time with the first volume in this supernatural fantasy series. That wonderful little book was called The Day the Angles Fell which came out in hardcover in September of 2017. It was released in a paperback version last summer.

Happily, The Day the Angels Fell won a Christianity Today Best Book of 2017 award in the fiction genre. It has gotten quite a buzz, with some local (trusted) friends telling us that this guy is the real deal. To be honest we were a little late to the game, but we’re glad to have been made aware of how good he is. We’ve not met, so I’m not just puffing a friend here; I am sincere that this is a novel published by a Christian publishing house that deserves to be widely known. It is an adult novel but could be easily read by sophisticated teens. Tons of folks raved about the first one and many have been awaiting this sequel, The Edge of Over There where Abra Miller is summoned (in her search for a Tree of Life) to a portal in New Orleans, and has to contend with others that also want to follow into this gateway to Over There. We’ll have it here at the shop in early July so if you are one of those who have been eagerly anticipating it, on the edge of your seats, even, we can send on out as soon as we get ‘em in stock.

If Shawn Smucker and The Day the Angels Fell are new to you, why not pick it up in anticipation of the mid-summer release of The Edge of Over There? It would be a sweet thing to send out both, in fact. We can still get the first one in hardback (so it matches the hardback of Edge of…) or in a somewhat cheaper paperback edition. Just let us know which you prefer. We’ll do the 20% off either way.

Listen to these reviews of Smucker’s writing chops. It’s not every day you hear this sort of buzz, and we’re very happy to endorse his work and invite you to pick these up. Who knows, maybe we’ll have him in the shop one of these days – stay tuned!

Praise for The Day the Angels Fell

“Neil Gaiman meets Madeleine L’Engle. I read it in two days!”–Anne Bogel, Modern Mrs. Darcy”

Shawn Smucker enchants with a deftly woven tale of mystery and magic that will leave you not only spellbound but wanting more.”–Billy Coffey, author of There Will Be Stars

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

The Day the Angels Fell has a nostalgic feel that reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s works.”–Ashlee Cowles, author of Beneath Wandering Stars and Below Northern Lights

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 // sale price $13.59

DUE DATE: JUNE 12, 2018

Okay, friends, here’s another that is surely one of the most anticipated books of the year. Love her or not, Rachel is a rock star in some progressive evangelical circles and her coming out with great passion for marriage equality and opposing fundamentalists of all sorts has made her nearly a cause célèbre and a Person of Interest in the culture wars. I’m probably more conventional than her in my theology, but what is frustrating in her high profile social media status is that some have forgotten that she is not only giving voice to a large group of people within the church but that she is also a very good writer. Like her pal Nadia Bolz-Weber, say, she can really turn a phrase and tell one a heckuva fun story. She’s a very good writer and for anyone that is captivated by punchy and entertaining contemporary memoir and blazing writing, she is one to follow.

I have no idea where she will come down on this weighty, freighted topic or what degree of scholarship or snark she will bring to her study of the Holy Scriptures. I do not think it will be any more dangerous than standard mainline perspectives – the subtitle, after all, is about “loving the Bible” as I am sure she does. As a former fundamentalist who – as she beautifully tells in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church – ends up a more moderate, liturgically-informed mainline Protestant, she surely doesn’t buy the literalism of her past. (She had broached this already in her first book about growing up in Dayton, Tennessee, what is called “Monkey Town” because of it’s famous faith vs. science Scopes Trial in 1925.) Okay, surprise, surprise, she’s not a fundamentalist and she doesn’t hold to old-school views of inerrancy. Good, since such views aren’t themselves Biblical anyway, owing more to rationalist worldviews of the Enlightenment.

I wish the publisher had made an advance copy of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again available, as I can’t imagine what all she covers, how she tells it, or how much actual argument is in the book for a new kind of hermeneutic. I saw a Chaim Potok quote in this twitter shot, which made me happy. I suspect it is mostly storytelling and memoir and will fit well with her other books.She’s a very smart cookie, has studied theology, and done the work of research and scholarship, but also is an entertaining storyteller. She is, I think, an important voice among others who are helping us all navigate faith in a wise and fruitful way here in “secular age” and in the land of Trump.

Dr. John Fea, above, shows what happens when we get off track, too easily conflating faith and some political ideology. Rachel’s story has been a sad one, a person hurt by the same sort of right-wing strictness that has hurt our body politic. If Fea gives us the big, historical picture documenting evangelical fear and havoc, Rachel Held Evans has told her particular story, often to very poignant effect.

I’m looking forward to this, as are thousands of others. If you would like us to send it to you as soon as it arrives, in early to mid-June, we are very eager to help. It would make a great book club choice, a fine discussion starter and a fun read for a small group that can be discerning, together. I think it will be the sort of book that ought to be discussed among friends. Why not order a few?


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BRAND NEW — “It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God” edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) ON SALE NOW

It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) regularly $19.99  ON SALE 10% OFF — $17.99

As most BookNotes readers know, we here at Hearts & Minds are passionate about stocking books that relate historic Christian faith to the complexities of modern life. That includes offering books that can serve as resources for those wanting to serve God well in various spheres of life, in different areas or arenas within society’s many institutions, sub-cultures and neighborhoods. We believe that the God who created the world and who became incarnate in it cares fiercely about our material lives in the world and it seems that we are one of the only Christian bookstores in the country that has whole sections of the shop dedicated to showing off wise and thoughtful books about how live faithfully in various spheres of culture. We stock books on science and architecture and sociology and engineering and economics and art and urban planning and philosophy and sex and farming. From family life to political life, from work to worship, God cares and we enjoy surprising customers by highlighting books that aren’t often found in many religious bookshops: racial justice and mathematics, pop culture and psychotherapy, literature and third world development, environmental science and poetry. We are all called to bear God’s image in this hurting world of wonder and books are tools – and healthy bread for the journey – to help us discover our vocations, honor God in our work, help create a more just society, and a flourishing culture. We love hearing about how our books help followers of Jesus become the salt and light He calls us to be, scattered in every area of life.

We regularly revisit this topic, explaining this holistic “all of life redeemed” theological vision which we and our staff attempt to bring to our task as booksellers, and hope that being reminded of the many different categories and kinds of books offered here – “bearing fresh olive leaves” as our friend Calvin Seerveld allusively put it – might be a blessing.

Of course, as we often have to say, our inventory is not on line — just years of our archived BookNotes newsletter and the many books we celebrate there most still on sale. You can use the website’s inquiry page for any sorts of questions you may have, though, and we can develop lists and suggestions to those who ask, on almost anything. We like to say that we can get almost anything in print.

But there are some books that we get particularly enthusiastic about.

Which brings us to a book that we are very, very happy to announce, a book for which many of us have been eagerly awaiting. It is called It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God.

It is the third in a series of handsomely created books about the arts, each edited and designed by our friend Ned Bustard. Ned is a Lancaster-based graphic designer and steward of a small indie press, Square Halo Books. Square Halo Books is a publishing venture that is widely respected for doing books about faith and the arts. Although they have published over a dozen books about Christianity and art, and several beautiful art books, they have released a few others not directly about the arts – Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C.S. Lewis by Donald T. Williams, for instance, my own Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Life and a pair of books on Genesis and on Revelation (The Beginning and The End.) Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grownups is remarkable. Another recent one from Square Halo that isn’t exactly on the arts (and that we really, really like) is by Tom Becker, called Good Posture: Engaging Current Culture with Ancient Faith. In many ways it is nearly a gentle, fun, manifesto for their publishing program. We highly recommend it and, like all their other books, are happy to stock it here at the shop.

I might suggest, though, that their most important books have been a wonderful pair called It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God and It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God. Both bring together theorists and practitioners to reflect on some important aspect about the art and practice of doing faith-inspired art. In both, they’ve had contributions from well-known writers (Timothy Keller, Sandra McCracken, Gregory Wolfe, Makoto Fujimura) and many who are not known outside of their particular field of expertise but are excellent in what they do. To curate such edited volumes has been both a challenge and a joy for Ned as it is no small matter finding artists and musicians who are theologically mature, good at their craft, who have been intentional about thinking about how they integrate faith and art, and who can actually describe and write about their own particular experiences in the arts. Some painters or musicians do their work very, very well, but are not particularly adept at talking about it, let alone writing a chapter inviting others to learn or take inspiration from them. And, sadly, as with the books integrating Christian thinking about other professions, there just isn’t the demand for these kinds of books that there should be. As you can imagine, It Was Good volume one and volume two were both labors of love, and both are, thankfully, absolutely must-have resources for anyone remotely interested in the creative arts. Alongside a handful of others, they are modern-day classics in the genre of theologically informed aesthetic vision that can inform our own appreciation of the arts.

You can read my lively BookNotes reviews of IWG: Making Art HERE and IWG: Making Music HERE.

The brand new It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God is unlike any other book on the market so it would be a great gift for anyone you know who is in, or aspires to be in, the world of the performing arts.

IWG number three includes 22 easily read chapters and is arranged in a format similar to the previous two. That is, there are somewhat allusive chapter titles that seem to correspond with (often) one-word themes. For instance, there is a chapter on hospitality, one on listening, another few on story, and a useful one on expectations. These are helpful for anyone – who couldn’t stand to be reminded of how to trust God more in a chapter that starts with an actor crying in a dressing room when she learned that she didn’t get a part she had hoped for? Although many of these chapters are fairly simple, with commonplace wisdom, they are firstly written to and for other performing artists which suddenly makes them a gift of great grace, especially for those starting out in their work in the performing arts. One great chapter on marriage is written by a woman in theater whose husband is a traveling musician; as one who works with his spouse in a family business, I found the chapter very helpful. The opening chapter by Ned Bustard on what it means that we are to live for God’s glory is, again, while designed for artists, obviously, is general and insightful enough that it would be well worth reading for any of us. His opening story of a young cellist in his church and her fear that she wasn’t able to glorify God in her musical endeavors is telling, and his apologetic for God-glorifying art and culture and living is well worth reading more than once.

If some of the chapters are light and nicely inspiring a few are very good in their mature expositions of the calling of artists. Ransom Fellowship’s Denis Haack has a fabulous rumination on story (as a way of describing the allure and importance of contemporary film.) After quoting a line by a critic in The Atlantic, who said “Fiction can briefly offer the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Haack writes:

To live in a world populated by creatures made for story, the calling to be a storyteller is a high calling, indeed. Making good films is a spiritual act, pleasing to God even if there isn’t a single religious thing, narrowly defined, in the film.

There are two pieces by sound engineers—on one the splendor of sound recording (you will never skip that part of the Academy Awards again!) and the other by a guy who works the soundboard at live concerts. One of the very best chapters is on “incarnation” and offers a theology of acting among “exploited image bearers.” It is very impressive that there is a chapter by classical dancer Jenifer Ringer, who had a best selling memoir of her work and struggles with the New York City Ballet, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet. I really liked the two pieces on horror, one by the impressive screenwriter Brian Godawa. Brian Chan’s chapter about monsters explains how “the pained villain speaks to our humanity.” Again, this stuff will be very useful to those working in the film industry, say, or who are dancers or actors. But I think those of us who are not professionals or working in the arts will certainly enjoy them. I sure did.

For instance, I was very moved by an excellent chapter on “consistency” by an actress in New York, Elizabeth Richard. (She happens to be a Tony Award nominee.) As she told the story of Estelle Getty, who played Sophia on The Golden Girls and garnered numerous Emmy nominations, and of an enduring producer she has worked with and even the long, hard work of Nobel Prize wining playwright George Bernard Shaw, I was strangely inspired. (She also referred back to a story in It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God which indicates she’s done some of the reading and thinking so necessary to be faithful in this arena.) Also, I was very, very impressed with a captivating chapter about stage and set design. Marlaina Seay’s emphasis on sin was almost a bit heavy-handed but her obvious joy in creating appropriate mood-enhancing lines and spaces with just the right lighting and color had beautiful hints of redemption, making it one of the strongest pieces in the collection.

If anyone needs a book that often speaks clearly to those who might, for stuffy theological reasons, have doubts about the performing arts, know that most of these authors are theologically conventional and obviously involved in evangelical church life. There is no lack of piety and nothing inappropriately edgy or odd. One of the early chapters describes a “green room” ministry that artists can have doing quiet evangelism and mentoring among other performers. One great piece on performance itself starts with an episode that will seem odd to non-fundamentalists, when one pastor worried about too much inflection and drama in how someone read the Scripture in church! These essays ought not be off-putting to more mainline denominational or ecumenical readers – in fact, perhaps the strongest piece in the book includes a serious (Reformed Protestant) study of Pope John Paul II’s important and generative “Theology of the Body” and its implications for artists and actors, particularly. Penned by Camille Hallstrom, who founded the theatre department at Covenant College, it is very, very good. Entitled “Dignity” and exploring the imago dei,it is perhaps the most important chpater for actors and actress in the whole book, exploring profound ethical and artistic matters of what to do on stage. It even ends with flourish, sharing a poem by former Minister of Culture in Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal.

The back few pages that offer the biographies, resumes, and professional accomplishments of the contributing authors is itself an amazing read – the qualifications of most of those writing here are top-shelf. They have mixed sound with expert recording artists, they have premiered plays in prestigious locations, they have danced with the best ballets in the world, they have made award- winning documentaries. There is a house manager of a major playhouse, there are those who have worked on well-known TV shows, there are those who teach in well-respected university departments. Whether one is drawn to the stage or enjoys serious TV, whether one is a dancer or a film-maker or actress, there is something in this book for you. Like its first two predecessors, It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God is a rare resource and a great read.

Two very impressive pieces bookend It Was Good: Performing Arts for the Glory of God. The first is a short foreword exclaiming how very useful this book is, written by David H. Kim, the Director of the Center for Faith and Work of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. (David helped edit the Faith and Work Study Bible, in fact, and brings his deep Kuyperian worldview to bear in ministry with Manhattan business people, educators, professionals of all kind, including, of course, artists.) He suggests that although this book is designed to help artists relate their faith in meaningful ways to their calling in their performing careers or avocations, it is also important for all of us. To be schooled in caring about aesthetics and the arts and the value of performance and the practical life of artists is itself a good thing for us all.

Kim writes:

Square Halo has done the church a great service. With each chapter, you will encounter the creativity and craft of those involved in various aspects of the performing arts. Through each chapter, my hope is that you will discover the reality of a Gospel that awakens the church to see the passing brokenness of this world through renewed eyes. A church that grasps the reality of pervasive grace is one that is compelled to bring hopeful works into all aspects of our world. Our current culture is in desperate need of just this kind of witness.

David ends his lovely essay where he began, describing the impact the performing arts can have:

I hope you will engage the performing arts and that through those experiences your growing attentiveness to our world will allow you to see that despite the tragedy of its brokenness there remains the glorious promise of unimaginable renewal.

The closing chapter of the book is one of the very finest. It is by an increasingly well-known film critic, Alissa Wilkinson, now a culture reporter and film critic at Vox.com. It is a wonderful piece, well written, as you would expect, and illustrating the profound sort of perspective that she has developed on her task as critic. She starts with a look at the negative reputation of the critic by noting the “skinny, sour-faced restaurant critic” Anton Ego from Pixar’s Ratatouille, and the way in which film critic Pauline Kael famously destroyed director David Lean’s confidence and career after his Bridge on the River Kwai.

“But is this the only path for the critic?” she asks. Can the critic actually have her work properly directed by love? Can the good critic help build culture rather than tear it down?

Wilkinson’s insights are profound here as she offers her reflections on “horizons, gestures, and postures.” She is channeling a bit of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, and James K.A. Smith (as she did somewhat in the co-authored book How to Survive the Apocalypse about the political implications of zombies, et al.) and it makes for a particularly thoughtful, insightful contribution.

Square Halo Books is to be commended putting out these good books. Kudos to Mr. Bustard for the behind-the-scenes work of nurturing relationships with so many artists in so many fields from so many venues which has borne fruit in this series of three It Was Good books. The bibliography in the back of this new one is thorough, but not exhausting, listing only the very best faithful scholars (of the likes of Jeremy Begbie, Calvin Seerveld, Madeline L’Engle, Cameron Anderson, Steve Turner, Sandra Bowden, William Edgar, Dorothy Sayers, and the like.) making it an ideal reference tool.

David Kim is right – Mr. Bustard has given a great gift to God’s people. Many others have also offered very cool rave views of IWG: Performing Arts… Scholar and professor William Edgar (himself a jazz pianist) says it is “must reading for anyone hoping to understand how the arts work for a Christian perspective.” Max McLean writes, “This is a wise book written by experienced practitioners who have been in the trenches of creating art from a Christian worldview. It ain’t easy, and if you want to try it, I suggest you read this book.”

Image journal’s Gregory Wolfe gives a “standing ovation.” And isn’t that what any performing artist hopes for? All I can ad is “encore, encore!



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FIVE BRAND NEW BOOKS: “Everybody Always” (Bob Goff), “The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson” (Stanley Hauerwas), “The Path Between Us” (Suzanne Stabile), “Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age” (Craig Detweiler), “One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race” (John Perkins) ON SALE NOW


Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Setbacks and Difficulty People Bob Goff (Nelson) $16.99  I can’t wait to read this brand new release by one of my favorite people and one of heckuva fun writer. Goff is a great storyteller and, man, does he have a lot to talk about – his work fighting international slavery, reforming laws in Uganda or his well known efforts forming schools (even in war zones in Somalia and Iraq) make for great testimony. So this is going to be great. He is a lawyer, motivational guy, and great dad and husband and friend to people all over the world. Did I mention the Somalia and Iraq thing? He’s full of good humor and seems to be fearless. The book is going to be great.

Those that know his hilariously moving Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World  (Thomas Nelson; $16.99) knows of the capers Goff gets himself into and the clever, inviting way he uses his world-class escapades as ways to help inspire us all to love others well, to do good stuff, to be involved in God’s work in the world and to be all in. Never have I heard the phrase “skin in the game” so well used.


If you haven’t read his first collection of wild pieces, or the very good book by his wife and partner Sweet Maria, by the way, called Love Lives Here: Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want (B+H; $17.99) you certainly should and I’m confident that you’ll enjoy them and will be pressing them into the hands of anybody you know who likes to read. The word of mouth buzz on Love Does has been one of the coolest things we’ve seen in our years of bookselling; everywhere we go people know this book. (And, happily, Love Does and Love Lives Here are the sort of books that can hook even though who don’t typically read much.) I also recommend his Love Does DVD curriculum ($29.99) which is a fun five-week course with Bob doing his Bob thing, leaking Jesus over everybody and somehow both reassuring and challenging and equipping us.

I have only read a small bit of Everybody Always and I can say I am sure it is an entertaining and important as Love Does. I know I need it. How ‘bout you? Isn’t the question intriguing: what happens when we give away love like we’re made of it?

Goff is a witty wordsmith, and it shows up even in his little epigram in the front – we are rivers, not reservoirs, he says. We don’t have to store up our love, but can give it away.

The preface, again, is stunning, so clever and so right on. We’ve been waiting for this book for a while and are delighted to hear which stories strike you best. “Whether losing his shoes while skydiving solo or befriending a Uganda witch doctor,” it says on the back, “Bob steps into life with a no-limits embrace of others that is as infectious as it is extraordinarily ordinary. Everybody, Always reveals how we can do the same.”

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson Stanley Hauerwas (Eerdmans) $21.00 There are many who know that Dr. Hauerwas, Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, is one of the most important living theologians today, a deep philosopher, a colorful speaker, and a vibrant and robust proponent of character formation by submitting to Christian practices within the church. That is, the church shapes and forms us to be God’s people in the world that, if we are following Jesus, at least, is going to be controversial and counter-cultural. He has written bunches of books, some quite scholarly, and is known all over the globe.

United Methodist gentleman and scholar Will Willimon has written with Hauerwas a lot – softening his edge only just a little – and, within another theological stream, James K.A. Smith has interacted with his work a wisely, even in his most recent volume, Waiting for the King. My friend Steve Garber’s first book, Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, spends considerable time engaging Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. Hauerwas even wrote a truly lovely book with Jean Vanier called Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness. Stanley, whose father was a bricklayer (his memoir is called Hannah’s Child) has significant interest in a theology of disability and his work with Vanier (who shares life with those with intellectual handicaps) makes sense. Despite his vast intellect and his reputation for passionate teaching and preaching, he is down to Earth and in many ways a plainspoken, wise elder who has himself found solidarity with the suffering.

And so, this book will have wide appeal, certainly for anyone who appreciates Hauerwas or who have wondered about him but didn’t know what book to read first. (This is it!)  Further, it will be appealing for anyone who wants to see how a set of letters describing different virtues can inspire even young people.  It certainly will be a great book for an older teen, perhaps a thoughtful high school graduate?

The letters that became the handsome hardback book The Character of Virtue started when Hauerwas wrote a thoughtful letter upon the infant baptism of his godchild, Laurence Wells (son of famous Anglican leader Sam Wells and Jo, his theologian wife and former Duke faculty member.)

Hauerwas, who admits that his own life may not be as virtuous as the letters he writes about the virtues, does a beautiful job writing a letter to Laurie once a year for sixteen years. In each letter he explains a bit about their life – they are personal letters, after all, to a real child and family friend – but mostly expounds on the particular virtue he is helping young Laurie to understand and embrace.

As you may guess, these are not childish letters and the young godson surely wouldn’t have understood them until years later. He does talk about pets and games (and politics) but, again, they are mature ruminations that I am sure the lad Laurie did not read until much later in life. But for us, older or younger adults reading over their shoulders, it is simply spectacular. What a set of epistles!  It is, as Lauren Winner has said, “a distillation of Stanley Hauerwas’s thought and a distillation of love.”

James Martin, SJ
— editor of America magazine
“Bound to become a classic, Stanley Hauerwas’s wise, gentle, and compassionate letters to his godson are, in fact, timeless teachings from a great spiritual master to all of us.”
N. T. Wright
— University of St. Andrews
“Seeing Stanley Hauerwas’s treatment of the virtues through the eyes of Sam Wells’s growing son, reflecting one minute on vast reaches of truth and the next on close-up political and personal challenges, all with a light touch and characteristic Texan grit–this is a treat. A book to read and savor.”
James K. A. Smith
— author of You Are What You Love and How (Not) to Be Secular
“Hauerwas’s marvelous letters in The Character of Virtue are not only wisdom for those growing in the faith; they are also a model for how all of us can come alongside parents in the hard good work of raising children in the faith.”
Lauren F. Winner
— author of Mudhouse Sabbath and Wearing God
“A distillation of Stanley Hauerwas’s thought, and a distillation of love–these letters should find a home on your bookcase. But make sure that it is easily accessed, as you’ll want to take The Character of Virtue down often, flip it open to any page, and immerse yourself in its loving, bracing wisdom.”

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships Suzanne Stabile (IVP) $24.00 and The Path Between Us Study Guide (IVP; $9.00)There are a lot of diagnostic tools to help us understand ourselves and others, from Meyers-Briggs to Love Languages and more. Learning about the nine Enneagram types has been incredibly popular this last year or two with several good books recently released. Customer keep telling us how much these books mean to them and how they’ve enjoyed these insights. Among our favs of recent titles include The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher Heuertz (Zondervan; $18.99) and Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling (IVP; $16.00.) But Suzanne Stabile’s first major book, co-authored by the always great and so interesting Episcopal priest Ian Cron, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (IVP; $24.00) has been by far the biggest seller and most discussed Enneagram book in years. This is, in part, I think, because it is so lively and fun and also because Stabile and Cron have had tremendously popular podcasts. It’s a great book.

The Path Between Us is a new sequel to The Road Back to You but can be read without having read the first one (especially if you already know something about the Enneagram types.) It really is about how we see ourselves, how we see others, and, most importantly, how the nine “types” see and experience relationships. Oh my. That is, in a manner similar to (but more nuanced and deeper than) the “love languages” project, it is inviting us to deeper, better, relationships and to be more gracious in understanding how others work. Stabile is known as a master teacher, a great communicator, and has been doing workshops on this for years – she’s a gifted storyteller and many have proclaimed she’s the best at this stuff, anywhere. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, for instance, says, “She is without question the best Enneagram teacher out there.” Another author says of The Path Between Us “you will reference it for years to come.”

Richard Rohr, who has himself written a massive book on the topic, says:

Few people can teach you the Enneagram with the genuine insight, humor, and potential for real growth and change better than Suzanne Stabile! Savor every page. You, your friends and family, and the universe will all benefit!

I have said this with the first book, The Path Between Us and I will say it again here: although I often don’t try to push “study guides” and “workbooks” I do think in this case the workbook is very, very useful as a tool to process this information. This is the kind of content that has to be worked with a bit and the study booklet they’ve created is very highly recommended.

Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age Craig Detweiler (Brazos Press) $19.99 I love the writing and work of Craig Detweiler who has been one of the leading voices offering a thoughtful evangelical voice in the studies of popular culture, the modern zeitgeist, and faithful ways to navigate the world of entertainment, digital culture, video games, movies, and such. We take his book iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives almost everywhere we go, hoping that it will inspire folks to attend more deeply about the very water we swim in, to discern a bit about the times, being better equipped to follow Jesus’ command to be “in but not of” the world. Detweiler does his good work, linking theology and Christian perspectives with social and cultural and historical analysis, so I trust him a lot. I was delighted to learn that he just recently took a new position as the president of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, a graduate school founded by our friend Dan Allender. What a good gift he will be to them.

This brand new one is extraordinary and I can’t wait to read it. If you have any sort of open-minded reading group that studies good non-fiction, I’m sure this would make a good selection to ponder and discuss. His main point, I gather, is that what seems like a culture of narcissism – the incessant taking of pictures of oneself – may be a signal of transcendence, some kind of hint about our significance as people made in the image of God. By tracing the history of things like self portraits in the art world he Detweiler shows deftly that this isn’t a new thing after all.

We have often said that the most important book (ever) on the topic of the image of God is Richard Middleton’s magisterial The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1and as potent as it is, it is, obviously, a book of Biblical research. Richard’s occasional co-author Brian Walsh has a extraordinary collection of talks and sermons that powerfully draw on the themes of what it means to image God, especially in socio-political regimes of secularization, idols and oppression (such as our own?) called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time. These are among books I return to often, to dip in and ponder and that I use in my own teaching and talks.

Craig Detweiler moves in a somewhat different direction in that this is less about what it means to image God in contrast to the false gods of the dominant culture of economic idolatry, say, but more about how through what we might call common grace we can find overlaps and great joys in the search for meaning in our selfie age. Middleton primarily gives us the Biblical content and Walsh powerfully critiques the time that it is in late Western capitalism and their work with the imago dei is brilliant. Another one of my favorite books on the nature of the modern self is the tremendous sleeper (that is, it is not terribly well known) by Mark Sayers called The Vertical Self and it certainly exposes our “self obsession.”  Detweiler is paying attention to the recent development of digital culture, of the experience economy, of how we are navigating this cultural moment psychologically and spiritually. Sure he looks at the over-emphasis of some things – Daniel White Hodge calls it in his blurb a look at “the good, the bad, and the very ugly” – but it isn’t mostly a critique. It is a love-song to our current age, an invitation, a re-framing by looking at history and how others have viewed the self, showing what might really be going on. He is asking how we do that —  think about the self, our inherent dignity, framing our self-understanding in light of the history of this sort of thing — in these days given our instant culture of selfies. Is there a continuity between Augustine’s memoirs and Rembrandt’s portraits and Kim Kardashian’s twitter feed?

Can we learn something about human happiness by reflection on Greco-Roman art or the early church fathers or, say, by reflecting on the rise of modern photography (perhaps through the lens of Susan Sontag’s  famous On Photography?)

This is fabulous stuff, brilliant, I’d say, with a extraordinarily rich set of footnotes and citations — wow. Detweiler is bringing a wonderfully learned, historical approach but also, it seems, a sweet sensibility, looking for the good, despite the “culture of narcissism,” helping us even delight in some of what is happening these recent days.

Here is the table of contents:
1. Introduction: How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Selfie?
2. Reflected Beauty: The Ancient Self
3. Mastering the Mirror: A Renaissance of the Self
4. Reframing Memories: The Literary Self
5. Seizing the Light: Photographing Ourselves
6. Behind the Mask: The Psychological Self
7. Instapressure: The Selfie Today
8. Augmented and Transfigured: The Self

As you can see from these rave endorsements, which I just had to copy, below, Selfies is a book rich in church history, in art history, in the contours of the rise psychology and technology and draws on great insights from inter-disciplinary cultural studies. And it yet is readable – it even has discussion questions, hinting that it could be used for book clubs or Sunday school classes. We highly recommended it to thoughtful readers  Check out these reviews:

Selfies helps us journey beyond our narcissistic culture, giving us language to move away from an ego-filled self-expression to our true identities hidden in Christ. Reflecting Detweiler’s impressive grasp of art history and deep wisdom attained in media ecology, Selfies is both an invaluable guide for understanding our techno world with all its trappings and a book full of delightful observations. — Makoto Fujimura, Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, Fuller Theological Seminary

I don’t know anyone who can connect the dots between centuries of church history and twenty-first-century selfies like Detweiler. This book has changed the way I think about the images I see and share as well as the image of God in all of us. — Kara Powell, Fuller Youth Institute; coauthor of Growing Young

Detweiler takes us on a fabulous journey through history in search of the first selfie. Stories of Narcissus, Rembrandt, Bayard, and Kim Kardashian provide a fascinating backdrop for understanding why it feels so good to get the perfect shot of me. — Peggy Kendall, Bethel University; author of Reboot: Refreshing Your Faith in a High-Tech World

A Rosetta stone for people of faith bewildered by the seeming narcissism of the ubiquitous selfie. Detweiler taps the collective wisdom found in Greek mythology, art history, psychoanalysis, and media criticism to help translate biblical principles to this troubling use of technology. Selfies encourages readers to view the images of others and ourselves with compassion and curiosity and to see past the image to the collective longing to be known. — Lisa Swain, Biola University

This brilliant book does not simply bash media but critically explores it while presenting the good, the bad, and the very ugly. A must-read for anyone who spends even a minute on the internet or near any media outlet. — Daniel White Hodge, North Park University; author of Homeland Insecurity: A Hip-Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Context

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race John M. Perkins (Moody Press) $15.99 This is a handsome linen hardback, sans dust jacket, with nice red endpapers and it seems to have some gravitas to it. It is said that this is Dr. Perkins’s last book. I don’t know about that but I am sure that any time this African American leader writes something, many people should buy it, pass it around, share his work widely, and make your friends and churches know how important it is. If this is aid to be his “parting words” you should pay attention.  There is a lot packed in here and he speaks plainly. In fact, he asks for our willingness to listen since he is an elder and doesn’t have time to mince words.

Dr. John Perkins has been an evangelical voice of black leadership development and service to the poor and civil rights and racial reconciliation for decades and, now in his late 80s (he as born in the 1930s to a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi) he wants to share thoughts about his many years doing God’s work. He has observed a lot, lived through a lot, suffering a lot, gotten numerous honorary degrees, and has learned much in his walk with the Lord and from his work in the movement for a better world. From the role of lament to the power of forgiveness, from racial tensions and fear to how to overcome them, he here offers profound and succinct insight.  There are nine good chapters and a study guide making this ideal for a book group or Bible study group.

His last book, by the way, was called Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (which is now out in paperback, by the way for $15.99) and in that, too, we have this sense that he’s calling us more powerfully than ever before to repent of bigotry and towards reconciliation and to remain faithful at these tasks of doing justice and making a difference.

Jon Foreman of the band Switchfoot wrote a great afterword for One Blood and it offers a great reminder of the need too keep fighting the good fight, in the power of love. Throughout the book there are some other pastors who have chimed in, offering glimpses into how some churches have embodied and lived out this message Perkin’s brings. There are some prayers, some verses to look up, some thought-provoking questions, so it’s ideal, especially to give to rising leaders or younger folks.


As Dr. Perkin’s himself says, explaining the urgency of “last words”:

In many ways this is a short book about everything I want the church to know before I leave this place.  This is what I want you – the church – to know. This is my manifesto.


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Honoring the Radical King — and some books to help us learn ON SALE

This was an article that I wrote for our local paper, the York Daily Record, who was kind enough to run it as an op-ed piece on Sunday. It’s on their YDR webpage, too. I’ve added more books below then the few I had in the article in the paper and described them a bit. I thought you might want to see it, and see the books listed. They are on sale and you can use our secure order form page by clicking the link below.

Early morning, April four

Shots ring out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

A whole generation of millennials learned the date of Martin Luther King’s assassination not from their history books but from the most important rock band of their era, U2, and their powerful song Pride (In the Name of Love.) Those of us who remember that awful date because we followed Dr. King in the harsh days of 1968 were reminded of what happened at the Lorraine Motel by Bono and I, for one, am grateful.

Those shots rang out 50 years ago last Wednesday.

Even those churches with a vision of civil rights and social justice – which is to say Roman Catholics, most mainline denominational Protestant congregations and increasingly, some evangelicals — don’t teach much about King or his vision, let alone his death. My sense is that many historically Black and Latino churches do not much, either.

Which is odd, since Dr. King was one of the most overtly Christian public intellectuals of our time and one of the most eloquent preachers in American history. He remains a lively interpreter of Christ’s call to make a difference in the world. The shallow intellect and lax moral qualities of today’s celebrity preachers, from Jerry Falwell to Franklin Graham to Joel Olsteen, put into high relief the caliber of the likes of King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement.

Granted, King himself had his own besetting sins and foibles. (The scene in the must-see film Selma when King calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson late at night to sing to him his favorite hymn because he was so scared is based on a true incident.) He and his associates, like all of us, had feet of clay. Yet, America hasn’t in years seen the likes of public theologians such as those that marched with King – just think of the Jewish leader Abraham Heschel, black Baptist preacher and King’s Lieutenant Ralph Abernathy, or the Presbyterian William Sloane Coffin, converted to public justice issues after a stint in the CIA. These were leaders that were well read, deeply conversant in the best American political theory, and profoundly committed to thoughtful engagement with Scripture.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King many have said nice things about him; radio shows played clips from the “I Had a Dream Speech” and even those who care little about his teachings – Christian nonviolence, a radical critique of empire and materialism, the dignity of all people, including the prisoner and the poor – will clamber to pay homage.

I want to cry out when I hear ministers (of any race) and public officials (of any party) quoting King as if they know something about him or care about his social agenda when it is evident they do not. (Mike Huckabee scolded Black Lives Matters activists saying King wouldn’t have approved when that was not self-evident. How dare he suggest he cares what King thought when in so many ways he obviously does not?) I sometimes wonder how many people who cite him have read even a single of his many books?

Do we recall what the great preacher was doing in Memphis that fateful April day? He was taking his stand with underpaid garbage workers, helping their union fight for fair wages against a system stacked against the poor of all colors. He was exhausted, working harder than ever, not just for desegregation – the movement was making headway on the racial integration of lunch counters, schools, and voting rights – but against poverty, against corporate malfeasance and crony capitalism that oppressed those in the third world and kept folks poor here at home. One of his most fiery speeches was preached at a church in New York exactly one year earlier in which he passionately and unequivocally condemned the Vietnam war. It was so blistering even the New York Times criticized it.

As Jason Sokol, author of the new The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, in a concluding chapter “From Outlaw to Saint”,

Americans were able to admire King because they picked and chose which parts of his career they wanted to embrace. They scrubbed his message and blunted his meaning. Eventually, the historical King – a courageous dissident who unsettled the powerful –would be replaced by a mythical one.  Many white Americans concentrated on that single line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and effectively reduced his life to one quotation. They began to appropriate King’s legacy and wield it in their own causes.

In his last years Rev. King increasingly tempered the optimism of “The Dream” insisting that for many it had become a nightmare. Yet, he continued to share his own faith in the gospel. Many have heard his tired but reassuring words on the evening of April 3rd about not being afraid of dying since he knew he’d go to heaven; he was a preacher, after all, and his agenda for social righteousness was motivated by deep, personal faith.

But he also pressed harder than ever to – as the Biblical prophet Amos put it – “let justice roll down” and to (as the prophet Isaiah put it) “break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.” He understood what Jesus meant when he said that the “weightier matters of the law” are justice and mercy. Perhaps because Martin was so rooted in the prophetic ethics of Biblical faith, it isn’t surprising that black Christian philosopher Cornel West has called him “The Radical King.”

We must reject the milk-toast view of King the noble reformer, safe and domesticated. We should familiarize ourselves with his profound theological tradition of Biblical reflection on themes of public justice and liberation. We should ponder his vision of being a global citizen, caring about the hungry abroad and rising up to be assertive peacemakers in a world of warriors. We should honor his commitments to reform the social architecture of society and the values that undergird it, which, of course, demands some willingness to bring prophetic critique to the status quo and the driving forces of the culture. Inspired by the Reverend King we should be glad for those who stand against police brutality, who work for better health care policy, who are welcoming of immigrants and refugees, who demand firm legislation that upholds the cause of the hurting. Like Dr. King, and the Hebrew prophet Isaiah he so loved, we must cry out to legislators saying “Woe to them that decree unrighteous decrees…who turn aside the poor.”

A good place to determine if we want to align ourselves with Dr. King’s vision is to read books by and about him.

At our Dallastown bookstore we once got an alarming, near-death threat shoved under our door for featuring books by the great preacher. But we shall not be moved. We will continue to promote books about King’s philosophy of nonviolence and will continue to resource those who want to work for social change, connecting human flourishing and the common good to the great American experiment that King spoke about so eloquently

Here are several for starters.  All on sale.


The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster) $16.00  Taylor Branch is widely respected for his massive, magisterial three-volume history of “American in the King Years.” This one is a smaller, vivid, accessible summary of the bigger set and offers helpful background and texture to King’s work. The best way to learn the most important episodes of the civil rights movement; highly recommended even though they are not all about Dr. King.



March Book One, March Book Two, March Book Three John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Mate Powell (Top Shelf Productions) $14.95, $19.95, $19.95  I hope you know these excellently done, slightly oversized graphic novels that tell the biography of this grand civil rights leader who worked closely with King. Congressman Lewis, as you may know, is the only living main stage speaker from the famous March on Washington and, of course, was a leader at Selma and beyond.  While not only about King, it is a great way into these stories and that era, especially for those who appreciate comic books and graphic novels.

Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Stephen Oates (Harper) $19.99  This has won numerous awards is still widely considered one of the very best biographies of King.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  David Garrow (William Morrow) $22.99  The respected historian won the Pulitzer Prize for this beautiful, painstaking study of King’s SCLC years. We should all know about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and this book tells it brilliantly.

Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians  Rufus Burrow (Westminster John Knox) $18.00  I hope you know these “Armchair Theologians” books — they really are very interesting, complete with a few helpful cartoons. They aren’t really whimsical, but they are designed to study serious stuff about various theologians and their intellectual influences. There are bunches of them (on Luther, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Aquinas, and more.) This one is solid, interesting, helpful, fun. You will learn a lot, I’m sure.



Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero Vincent Harding (Orbis) $16.00  I have long admired the colorful Harding, a storyteller of the first order, a passionate and decent leader of the movement. (His There Is a River is another classic in the literature of the black struggle for freedom in America.)  He knows the stories, he knows why we must keep telling them, and he offers here a hard reminder of what King stood for.




Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story Martin Luther King, Jr. (Beacon Press) $16.00  This was King’s first book and wonderfully documents the drama of the famous bus boycott that catapulted him to the national spotlight. I often say this is one of my own personal favorite books and it shows not only King coming to terms with Biblical nonviolence (his seminary professors tried to talk him out of it) and how the famous bus boycott got organized.

Where Do We Go From here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King, Jr. (Beacon Press) $16.00 This handsome companion volume to Stride Toward Freedom is the last book Dr. King wrote. This edition has the famous foreword by Coretta and a recent introduction by the great Vincent Harding. Powerful stuff.

Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation Jonathan Rieder (Bloomsbury) $16.00  King’s short letter written from a jail cell to moderate, sympathetic clergy, remains one of the classics of American literature; the rhetoric and eloquence of it is nothing short of brilliant. Professor Rieder explores the setting and the implications of this period of King’s life. It is widely considered a major contribution and was highly reviewed when it came out a few years ago.



Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church Edward Gilbreath (IVP) $16.00  Gilbreath is an exceptionally thoughtful and well informed black evangelical; his 2008 book Reconciliation Blues is an honest study of white Christianity.  I think this is an excellent bit of research, one which Curtiss Paul DeYoung calls “magnificent.” One reviewer wrote:

 “In this book African American journalist Edward Gilbreath explores the place of that letter in the life and work of Dr. King. Birmingham Revolution is not simply a work of historical reflection. Gilbreath encourages us to reflect on the relevance of King’s work for the church and culture of our day. Whether it’s in debates about immigration, economic redistribution or presidential birth certificates, race continues to play a role in shaping society. What part will the church play in the ongoing struggle?”

I Have A Dream: Sermons and Writings That Changed the World  Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper) $15.99  There are bigger anthologies (such as the large A Testament of Hope) but this is the best, most economical one-volume collection of his most important writings.

Editor James M. Washington arranged the selections chronologically, providing headnotes for each selection that give a running history of the civil rights movement and related events. In his introduction, Washington assesses King’s times and significance.  A must.


The Radical King edited by Cornel West (Beacon Press) $16.00 The contemporary philosopher, activist, and public intellectual selects and introduces various letters, speeches, and essays of King’s that best illustrate his radical social vision.  I hope you know West and his several books (including a recently re-issued Race Matters.) He has done us a great service to offer this particularly curated selection and a few explanatory notes about each reading.  We have good studies of “the domestication” of King; this one allows you to read his words for yourself.



The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jason Sokol (Basic Books) $32.00  This new hardback is great social history, reminding us well what King was up to his last year, what happened in the immediate aftermath of his murder (where would the funeral be held, how would they move the body, who would attend, why didn’t President Johnson show?) and how the subsequent riots effected the nation. This is a riveting read, highly recommended.



Reflections by Rosa Parks: The Quiet Strength and Faith of a Woman Who Changed a Nation  Rosa Parks (Zondervan) $  This fabulous book used to be out as Quiet Strength and it is great to see it again with this excellent cover and nice, hand-sized, square, gift-book format. This is inspiring, of course, and is a fine way to learn a bit about the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and also to hear about the classic faith of many of Kings friends and influences. Love it!


A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation Based on His Experiences Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott Rev. Robert Graetz  (NewSouth Books) $26.95  Graetz was in 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, a young white Lutheran pastor of a mostly black church. He has learned quite a lot over the years and some of our friends in the CCO have gone on civil rights tours with him. This is a rare and very special contribution, nicely done. There is a forward by John Lewis.



Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi: The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson Chet Bush (Abingdon Press) $21.99 There are so many books like this, quiet, moving, informative stories that you may have never heard, lesser-known saints who served God despite all. This moving tale tells of Dr. Charles Johnson who was the key African American witness to take the stand in the trial famously dubbed the “Mississippi Burning” case by the FBI. Dr. Johnson was a young preacher fresh out of Bible College and became a voice for justice and equality in the segregated south. As the publisher says:

Unwittingly thrust into the heart of a national tragedy – the murder of three civil rights activists – Dr. Johnson overcame fear and adversity to become a leader in the civil rights movement. He played a vital role for the Federal Justice Department, offering clarity to the event that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And, in a shocking turn of events, Johnson offered a path of reconciliation for one of the convicted killers. A story of love, conviction, adversity, and redemption, Called to the Fire is a riveting account of a life in pursuit of the call of God and the fight for justice and equality.


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